Friday, December 12, 2008

Anywhere out of the world

Who on earth was Jean Mohler? Does anyone know?

Jean Mohler, Le Spleen de Paris
Original etching, 1946

Because I collect fine illustrated editions of Baudelaire, I recently acquired a copy of Le Spleen de Paris, illustrated by this obscure artist. I can’t find him listed in any reference book, and know nothing about his dates of birth and death, origins, studies, or mature associations. Yet I think his 16 full-page, hors-texte etchings for Le Spleen de Paris are absolutely brilliant.

Mohler’s etchings are essentially rooted in the freely-drawn, expressive realism of the between-the-wars School of Paris. His work shows the influence of major artist-illustrators of the 20s and 30s such as André Dignimont and Gus Bofa. Both of these would have been a generation older than him, I would guess, for the first evidence of Mohler’s existence I can find is the publication in 1943 of his edition of Sous la lumière froide by Pierre Mac Orlan (an author frequently associated with Dignimont and Bofa). Mohler also illustrated the novel Jésus-la-Caille by Francis Carco, another author often linked with Dignimont and Bofa.

Jean Mohler, Chacun sa chimère
Original etching, 1946

Jean Mohler’s three major livres d’artiste, all illustrated with original etchings, appeared in quick succession. An edition of Ben Jonson’s Volpone was published by Éditions de la Nouvelle France in 1945, under the artistic direction of Hervé Baille, in an edition of 395 copies. It looks as if Baille was trying to marshal talent for Éditions de la Nouvelle France in the 40s rather as Édouard Chimot had for Devambez in the 20s, but the times were far from propitious. So far as I can see the whole project fizzled out after a handful of books, including La Légende de Don Juan by Albert t’Serstevens, illustrated with original lithographs by Gaston de Sainte-Croix in 1944, and the wonderfully titled Les Moments Perdus de John Shag by Gilbert de Voisins, illustrated with copper engravings by Hervé Baille himself in 1945.

Jean Mohler, L'horloge
Original etching, 1946

Mohler’s second important book came the following year, with the edition of Le Spleen de Paris under discussion. A total of 359 copies were published: one on Japan, 3 on Arches, 8 on B.F.K. Rives, 93 on Lana, 245 on vélin pur fil du Marais, and 10 hors-commerce copies on unstated papers. There were no separate suites of the etchings, but the first 32 copies had varying numbers of rejected plates, up to a total of 6 in the unique copy on Japan paper. In this case the art director was Jean Baudet, rather than Hervé Baille. As with Volpone, Mohler’s etchings were printed by the specialist taille-doucier Manuel Robbe.

Mohler’s last major work was an edition of Racine’s Cantiques Spirituels, published in 1947 by Pierre Gaudin, in an edition of just 160 copies. My internet searches have turned up a few further minor contributions to books, up till 1952, and after that, nothing. Mohler seems to emerge from thin air and vanish back into it, after a mere decade of activity.

Jean Mohler, Eros, Plutus et la Gloire
Original etching, 1946

So I’m left wondering what prevented Mohler enjoying a long and distinguished artistic career. His etchings for Baudelaire nod both to Surrealism (in, for instance, Chacun sa chimère), and to Cubism (in the Picasso-esque figure of La Gloire in Eros, Plutus et La Gloire). This shows a keen awareness of the main artistic movements of the day, and along with his technical accomplishment suggests that Jean Mohler had studied at art school. My immediate though was that he probably studied etching under Édouard Goerg at the Beaux-Arts, Paris. Several of his plates, for instance L’horloge and La Belle Dorothée, remind me of Goerg both technically and stylistically. But looking up the dates, it appears Goerg was only made a professor at the Beaux-Arts in 1949. He may have had an atelier at some other institution in the 1930s; further research is needed.

Jean Mohler, La Belle Dorothée
Original etching, 1946

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief account of all the things I don’t know about Jean Mohler – and if anyone could add any further facts or thoughts, I’d be very grateful.


Will said...

I don't have anything to add, but thanks for sharing these wonderful etchings.

Seeing your mention of Carco reminded me that just last night I discovered the name of the translator of Carco's pulp novel Perversity (which has been sitting on my desk for a few months): Ford Madox Ford! But wait, now checking the spelling of "Madox" I discover here that it was really Ford's lover Jean Rhys.

I keep coming across Pierre Mac Orlan's name in the most random places too, so maybe I'll soon discover something about Mohler.

Neil said...

Thanks, Will. I'm not sure why Jean Rhys disguised herself as Ford - perhaps it was the only way for them to persuade the publishers to stump up the cash. Ford Madox Ford is an under-appreciated writer, but Jean Rhys is even better, in my view. There was quite a good film about their relationship about 20 years ago, Quartet.

Anonymous said...

I can't put my hands on it, but our inter-university library system has "Les figurant de la mort", a novel by Roger de Lafforest, published by B. Grasset,Paris: 1939, and illustrated by Jean Mohler. The novel won the Prix Interallie for that year.
About "Quartet", do you know if Rhys ever indicated that her novel was modeled on the relationship, or did Merchant-Ivory simply assume that? Inquiring minds want to know...Thanks again.

Neil said...

Jane, The Grasset edition of Les figurants de la mort was published in 1939, but I don't believe it was illustrated. The Mohler-illustrated edition was published in 1945 (possibly 1944, there seems some confusion, so possibly the book was undated) by Les Éditions de la Nouvelle France. The illustrations appear to be pochoir reproductions of watercolours, very much in the style of André Dignimont. As for Jean Rhys and Quartet, I don't know. I think the book was widely, and correctly, regarded as a roman à clef, but it may be that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote the screenplay for the Merchant Ivory film (which was released in 1981, I find) increased the emphasis on this autobiographical reading. But then Rhys herself said, "I have only ever written about myself." There may well be something in her Letters, her unfinished autobiography Smile, Please, or in the forthcoming biography by Lilian Pizzichini.

Roxana said...

I can't believe he is forgotten! such marvelous etchings! I'm in love with dorothee and the black cat one.

[coming back to our earlier discussion about death, I stumbled upon another death figure in the One Hundred Years of Solitude, masterly crafted, and of course feminine, since it's la muerta. and thank you for the Pamuk tip]

Neil said...

Thanks, Roxana. Sorry that the two etchings you love are a bit blurred in my photos, I'll try and replace them with steadier shots! I agree they're both lovely. I'm not surprised an artist of this quality can have been forgotten, but to be so completely overlooked as not to be listed in any reference book seems really weird.

Anonymous said...

I like especially "L'Horloge" and the other etchings from "Spleen." Mohler was at his best just before he disappeared. I hope someone who reads this will solve this mystery.
J'aime surtout que « L'Horloge » et l'autre grave de la « Rate ». Mohler était au sien mieux juste avant qu'il ait ait disparu. J'espère que quelqu'un qui ceci lit résoudra ce mystère.

peacay said...

Est-ce que vous parlez bien le français Niel? Parce-que, je pense que vous devez écrire à une librairie en France, n'est-ce pas?

Actually, I had two (more) serious recommendations. Will has already answered so that's strike one.

The other is to join the ExLibris list and ask a question. These are all full-on rare book librarians (with a fair sprinkling of bibliophilia and bookshop types). I have seen people on this list front with amazingly esoteric info.

But info about specific obscure illustrators might be pushing it in terms of direct knowledge. I reckon it's worth a shot thought - (don't forget to add idburyprints URL as your sig. if you post something -- there's a modest amount of selfpromotion allowed)

peacay said...

Also, take a look at this page about Remy de Gourmont ('Le Chemin de Velours'). I *don't think* this is a wild goose chase.

There's a link to a frontispiece by Mohler and although it's a woodcut and I'm having trouble dating it - 1924 is all I can conjure, but I don't know if that's right - the style would appear to fit, within reason. (eg. eyes, if nothing else; but also the wings and general weirdness)

There are a number of entries on WorldCat but I'm unsure which this is.

I know this moves you no further along in terms of bio, but I like a hard search problem and this *may* be another tidbit to add to the pile of gathered info.

Neil said...

Thanks very much, Peacay, for all these suggestions. I don't think the undated frontispiece for Le Chemin de Velours can be earlier than the 40s, myself; probably early 50s. Could be a woodcut, but it might just be a two-colour reproduction of a drawing. Mohler's style is a bit old-fashioned for his time, which suggests to me he was a young man still in thrall to his masters. Whether he died young or simply gave up art for an easier life, we wait to find out.

Anonymous said...

I put in my French two-cents-worth in the hope that someone French (like Jean Mohler)who doesn't speak English might add some information.

mister M said...

trés beau votre blog, cela fait plaisir de voir de la gravure par ici,
all the best

Neil said...


Anonymous said...

Gosh the prints are so lovely!our blog!

Jasmine said...

Thanks for shareing this nice story

Neil said...

Thanks, Jasmine. I hope you will enjoy the rest of the blog.