Gregoire Michonze, Russian-French painter, Michonznic by his real name, was born on the 22nd of March 1902, in Kichinev, Bessarabia, then part of the Russian Empire, now Moldova, into a modest jewish family. He was the eldest of five children, Gregory, David, Boris, Israël and Lisa. His father, son of a Yeshiva director, kept a draper’s shop. His mother came from a family of rabbis from Sadagova, in Bukovine.
He started studying at his local Art School. Painting icons also gave him the opportunity to get familiar with the egg tempera technique, whose delicacy had a definite influence on his future work.
Bessarabia having become Romanian in 1918, he continued his studies at the Academy of Painting in Bucarest. He also worked as a set designer at the National Theatre, and befriended Victor Brauner, who was one year younger than himself.
As he could see no artistic future elsewhere than in Paris, he embarked on August 15th 1922, from Constanza, to Marseilles, via Istanbul and Greece, whose rocky landscapes made a lasting impact on his paintings.
In Paris, he naturally found his way to Montparnasse, where the cafés were the meeting point of artists and intellectuals of the time. He was to paint his whole life long, for sixty years, in Paris. The café La rotonde was where he met Chaïm Soutine, with whom he felt deep affinities. They would go and watch boxing matches or wrestling, speaking little, except when Soutine would become enthusiastic about Rembrandt…
At first he survived through a series of casual jobs. Thus, he made the acquaintance of Max Ernst in a workshop where they decorated galalith bracelets, cigarette holders, and such knick-knacks.
In 1924, Max Ernst introduced him to the surrealists : André Breton, Paul Eluard, Yves Tanguy, Louis Aragon, André Masson, Man Ray… He attended their meetings at the café Cyrano, but never was part of the group : he was too independant to be in tune with Breton’s authoritative character. Concerning this period, he was to write, in 1959 : « I was impressed by surrealism at it's birth. I was present. I was young and so were they. I may have painted surrealistically for a year or two in the late twenties, but I resolutely turned to life, to reality around 1930, and never left it. I insist that art is linked forever with life. And poetry in painting matters more than painting itself. (...) Soutine is strong reality, seen by a fierce poet. It is distorted, but is according to nature and to life, always. » But Michonze had definitely caught « the surrealist virus » as he called it, which might be one of the reasons his painting differs from that of his friends and compatriots, like Kikoïne, Kremegne or Volovick.
For a short time, he also followed classes at the National School of Decorative Arts, and came to the conclusion that « Decorative and pictorial arts are like water and fire ». However, among many things he had to do to survive, he created models for printed fabrics, in a workshop held by his friend Ilya Zdanevitch, who then worked for Chanel.
In 1927 he started signing Michonze, in cursive script, instead of Michonznic.
He took part in the creation of Arthur Adamov’s and Claude Sernet’s avant-garde review « Discontinuité », spent time with Robert Desnos, Max Jacob, Antonin Artaud, and Ilya Zdanevitch as well as the Romanian artists and poets such as Brassaï, Benjamin Fondane, Ilarie Voronca, Tristan Tsara. He illustrated some of their writings and contributed to the Romanian avant-garde reviews « Tiparnita literara » and « Unu » from 1930 to 1932.
In 1928, he met Henry Miller at the Dôme. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Much later, in 1978, Miller wrote about him : « Your work as revealed in this little book is your justification for living. It is greater than I had dreamed it to be. It is gloriously mad, drunk, insane, lecherous, caricatural and yes « anecdotal ». But how wonderful, how moving ! You were so right in never joining the surrealist movement... »
On June the 2nd 1930, Julius Pascin took his own life.
In 1931, Michonze spent some time on the riviera, at Cagnes sur Mer where there was a colony of anglo-american artists and writers gravitating around the poet Abraham Lincoln Gilespie Junior (Linky). He met Cyril Connoly and later painted his portrait posing with his wife. He gave his first solo exhibition in his Antibes studio in September of 1932, showing oil paintings as well as gouaches, a medium he always loved for it’s mat aspect and the depth of its colours.
Soutine took him to Vence to see « his tree », the one he had painted eighteen times : « Is it not like a cathedral ? ». Michonze knew perfectly well why Soutine had chosen this particular tree : there was a little corner on the square where no one could watch him paint.
From 1931 to 1937, he showed regularly at the Salon des Surindépendants and in different group exhibitions, namely at the Renaissance, Jacques Bonjean and Clausen galleries.
Toward the mid thirties, his compositions became more intricate and varied, some of which quite large, where one could depict the influence of Bruegel and Bosch or of the Quattrocento. At the same time, he painted small delicate portraits. All his life through, he was seen to paint portraits, often on command, which were not really to his liking, but guaranteed him a living for a short time. He always kept away from the beaten track, asserting his own style, which he later named, somewhat humorously, « surreal naturalism ». He travelled mainly all over France and in Europe, but also in America and Israël, always open-minded, curious of landscapes, of the architecture of villages, but mostly of people. He invariably carried a little sketch book in his pocket and drew almost anywhere, in the street, in cafés, in the train, even in buses. Whether from nature, or freely, drawing was the foundation of his art.
He wrote, about his painting, in 1959, during all the debates about abstract and figurative art : « All the subjects are subjectless, and are there for the sake of a poetical result. If poetry is reached, the picture is achieved. No story. Poetry, without a title, preferably. And that is how I am a surrealist, in my own way. » In 1935, he painted « Interior », a large square enigmatic canvas, where his Russian friend the abstract painter Pierre Grimm is depicted, among different figures lost in their dreams, and right in the center of which lies a baby, his grand nephew, the future poet and linguist Henri Meschonnic, who was to become his friend and aficionado. He showed the large canvass « The farm » and « The musician » at the Salon des Surindépendants. In 1937, he began signing Michonze, with the letter z in block capitals.
In 1937, he sailed to the United States on the Normandie liner, stayed several months in Massachusetts and in New York, but without feeling particularly inspired by what met his eye.
Back in Paris, in 1938, he encountered a young artist, Una Maclean, who came from an very old Scottish family that had engineers and an admiral among its members. She came from London, with the intention of learning from an authentic artist. She had been given two adresses, Max Ernst’s and Michonze’s. Max Ernst was away, so she went to meet Michonze, and waited for him on the stairs. She learnt from him and modeled for him and later became his wife.
He wrote to her in 1939 : « I need you like potatoes ». Things were clearly established between them : Una was to be his wife, but painting would remain his mistress. There was no place for children, he knew only too well how difficult it was to survive as an artist. He also was afraid of losing the freedom that was vital to his art. However, they did have two children, Anna and Patrick, to whom he proved a generous and loving father.
He was friends with Francis Gruber, whose artistic conceptions seemed close to his own. Michonze was a man of the left, but his political convictions were never obvious in his paintings. He very rarely alluded to world affairs, as in « Le bottier », a large canvas painted in 1938, depicting a village street with a blind woman pointing her stick at the newspaper «Paris-Midi» on the ground, where one can clearly read the headlines : «The Munich agreements». The war scenes he painted in 1939 were allegorical. He never displayed Jewish traditions, and the pogroms of his home town, Kichinev, very rarely appear explicitly in his work.
Michonze enlisted in the french artillary in 1939, was taken prisoner in June 1940 and transfered to stalag XC in Germany, at Nieburg-on-Weser, 60 km from Bremen. He spent over two years there, from 1940 to December 1942. Nearby, Russian prisoners of the Red Army were grouped together in terrible conditions. He testified by drawings, some of which served as a basis for paintings, and the memory of his starved fellow countrymen haunted his work forever.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Una, who had been warned of a roundup of British citizens, decided not to escape, for fear of losing all contact with Michonze. She accepted being taken and imprisoned in several camps in France, between January and August 1941, so that she could continue to receive his letters from Germany. Michonze was released and back in Paris at the end of december 1942.
During the last three years of the war, he painted small sized compositions, with numerous figures, as well as portraits and many still lifes - any food you could lay your hands on had to become a painting. Una would paint at his side or model for him. All this period is rich in drawings, pen and ink or india ink wash, pencil or charcoal, such as the 1943 portraits of his friend Benjamin Fondane, just before deportation.
In August 1943, Soutine, who had always suffered from a stomach ulcer, died at the age of 49. In september, Una gave birth to a little girl, Anna. The family lived in a studio on the rue de Seine. They also shared another place, in Arpajon, near Paris, where they had arranged a studio for both.
In October 1944, Michonze showed his « Memories of Captivity » in Arpajon, including sixty drawings and water colours of scenes from the stalag and heads of Russian soldiers, sold to the benefit of families of war prisoners.
After the liberation, he participated in many group exhibitions, in galleries such as : Jean-Marc Vidal, Berri-Raspail, Drouant David, Roux Hentchel, John Devoluy, and also the Salon d’Automne.
In 1946, he at last heard from his family : his mother and sister who lived in Romania had survived the Iasi pogrom, one of the worst of the whole war. His father had been killed by the Romanian Iron Guards, near Iasi, in one of the « death trains » of the summer of 1941. His brother managed to escape and to survive. There was no sign of life from his brothers Boris or Israël.
Una had a first solo exhibition organised for Michonze in London, at the Arcade Gallery in 1946. In 1947 he took up French nationality. The family moved to a flat in the rue Daguerre, leaving Michonze to work undisturbed in his rue de Seine studio. A new exhibition took place in London, in the autumn, at the Mayor Gallery.
In 1948, he travelled to England and visited Scotland, where two more exhibitions were organized, in Edinburgh at the French Institute and in Glasgow at the McClure Galleries.
That same year, he lost his friend Francis Gruber, who died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty six.
Michonze contributed to the Salon des Surindépendants in 1946, 1947 and in 1948, where he showed his seminal painting : «The dreamers », a large canvas on which, among the anonymous villagers, one can recognize André Breton on a white horse, Max Ernst, Picasso, Baudelaire, Nietzsche and others, as well as the collector who had commissioned the painting.
In 1949, the French State acquired his canvas « The harvest », for 40 000 francs, quite an amount at the time. It is now in the collections of the « Fonds National d’Art Contemporain ».
He participated again in the Salon des Surindépendants in 1950, and also in the Salon de Mai in 1951 with a very large egg tempera canvas « Personnages devant la mer ». Large size paintings were relatively uncommon among his works, (which rarely exceded 50x60 cm) and were often conceived especially for these big shows.
Una and he got married in Paris, in June 1951. In July and August of the same year, he held a solo exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, at the Bassano gallery. That year, he also became initiated to etching and engraving, in William Hayter’s studio in Paris.
In 1953 his first solo exhibition in Paris opened in his friend Mayo’s studio, after over thirty years of presence in Paris. The following year, a second exhibition was given at the Guénégaud gallery. He never mentioned this exhibition, feeling it had been partially misunderstood. Some critics used the term « naive », as if the need for labels had made them miss what was essential in his work. His whole life long, he suffered from this misinterpretation. As he always moved upstream, he may not have fitted into the compartments of art history which does not mean his historical place does not exist.
On the 30th of April 1954 his son Patrick was born.
Michonze spent some time in Israël at his brother David’s, who had emigrated from Romania in the fifties with his family. He was at last reunited with his mother, after thirty two years of separation.
During all this time he sent regular contributions the the Salon Comparaisons.
Una was working as an English teacher in a private school in Paris. She installed a certain feeling of permanence in Michonze’s life. She found the studio at 31 rue de Seine in which he was to work all his life, he who kept changing addresses before the war. And he valued the way she looked at his work in progress and her comments. He would work fast, on several canvasses at a time. He slept most times at the studio, getting up early and working till midday. He then would go down to buy some food in the rue de Buci, and prepare a simple meal of mackerel or herrings with a few potatoes and fresh fruit. After a short nap he would go back to work until around six. He then would go down and meet some friends at the café La Palette, on the rue de Seine, or go to see a film.
For the summer, Una would find a rental with an extra room he could use as a studio, and he then joined the family, and all the children of the villages, in Normandy, Brittany or the Cevennes, would crowd in and sit for him. He sometimes used professional models and went to do sketches at the Academie de la Grande Chaumière. In his compositions, at all periods, nude figures, mainly female, appear so naturally among the clothed figures, that one hardly even notices them.
In 1959, Michonze gave an important solo exhibition at the Adams Gallery in London. Henry Miller prefaced the catalogue : « Of all the painter friends who have survived the wars, revolutions, massacres, tortures, devaluations and deteriorations of our time, Michonze stands out like the rock of ages. Today he seems even more alive, more healthy, more determined, even more hopeful, than when I first met him in 1928 at the terrasse of the Dôme. (…) He was always a lone figure. He has remained such. He paints his aloneness. But there is nothing lonely about his aloneness. More, there is something remarkably clean about his paintings. (…) They breathe the life of their creator, a man who has kept his heart clean, his mind open, who is still able to take a simple, healthy view of life, to praise and to revere it. »
During the exhibition, Michonze wrote to Una : « The Adams are really fine people. Almost shyly, they asked me if I was prepared to pay half the expenses with a picture ! Can you imagine such a proposition in Paris ? »
At this period, he met Abel Rambert who was to become his regular art dealer in Paris, thus giving the family a sense of relative economical security.
Michonze had always preferred painting on a smooth surface, such as paper, which implies working quickly, and thus preserving the spontaneity of the initial drawing, often still visible under the thin coat of paint. In 1960, he therefore learnt the technique of laying paper on canvas or wood, and used it regularly for small paintings all through the sixties.
He participated in Jean-Marie Drot’s television series « Les heures chaudes de Montparnasse », recalling his memories of Soutine. In 1961, he was awarded the American William and Noma Copley prize (Chicago). He often saw his friends the painters Henri Dimier, Pierre Domec and Maurice Baskine, other loners like himself.
In 1962, he began a new series of large pictures, on absorbent canvas, with egg tempera and pigments, depicting brawls, a somewhat humoristic and disenchanted vision of human violence. The large disorderly crosswise movements also generated a new vitality in these compositions. That same year, a solo exhibition was organised at the Valloton Gallery in Lausanne. In an interview for the « Tribune de Lausanne », when asked why he painted farmyards, he answered : « There is everything in a farmyard, beasts, people, objects, houses, trees, disorder is accepted, logical, tolerated».
At the Salon « Comparaisons » he showed « Rixe » (brawl), one of his recent large compositions. He also painted numerous oblong pictures, which he enjoyed composing and called his « oblonguettes ». Henry Miller, who owned one, wrote to him : « I have your narrow rectangular painting over the closet door of my bedroom where I see it every time I hit the bed. When people ask me who did it, I say "an old master". Certainly you are the toughest veteran of the art world in our time... ».
In 1964, he took part in the surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier in Paris, with his 1937 painting « On joue la rouge ». It was bought by the French State in 1972 and is now at the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris. The same year, he was the first winner of the Grand prize of the Biennale of Trouville. The family also settled in a larger flat, at 57 boulevard Lefebvre, where Michonze painted now and then, but the main part of his work still took place in the Rue de Seine studio.
In 1965, he showed «On joue la rouge » and « Il y a un nu et des aveugles» in the exhibition «Mars autour du surréalisme » at the Maison de la Culture of Caen, and « Eve et Eve» at the Salon « Comparaisons ». He travelled to Israël for the second time, to see his mother at his brother David’s house. In May 1965, a long story about Montparnasse, « Le pays de Gregoire Michonze » by Patrick Waldberg, was published in the last number of the review « Le Mercure de France ».
In 1966 his mother died in Israël at the age of 86.
In 1967, Henry Miller paid him a visit in his rue de Seine studio. The scene was filmed by Robert Snyder who was shooting « The Henry Miller Odyssey ». Michonze explained : « I try to continue tradition. And I’m not bothering about doing anything new at all. And maybe I’m doing a bit of contribution of my own all the same ». As they look at the the oils in progress, Miller says his paintings remind him of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. Michonze answers : « The human being ! The human being you want, life, a cow, a horse, an animal !... Ask me what I have in my head. I have nothing in my head. All my brain goes into my fingers. And I have a hell of a time to give a title to a picture. I am just the same as an abstractionnist. The only difference is that I am fearfully faithful to life ! »
During a summer vacation with the family, Michonze came across an old water mill in the small village of Jully sur Sarce near Troyes, in the Champagne region. He bought it and had studios built in the adjoining barn, and from hence spent several months a year working there, striking up friendships with local painters such as Guy Péqueux and François Bard, or the poet Christian Noorbergen…
In 1969 he suffered two heart attacks. When he could not paint, he modeled small clay heads and figures, some of which were given a bronze edition.
Because of his father’s health condition, Patrick, who was now fifteen, was sent away to a secondary school in the the Alps, in Briançon. For some time he was a boarder, then lived at a lodging house, where he had too much freedom for the « fragile » adolescent he had become.
In 1970, Michonze visited Rome and Venice, where he painted from life.
In 1971, a little girl, Claudia was born to Anna and Martial Solal, composer and pianist whom Michonze had learned to appreciate. Music always held an important part in his life, always present, stimulating him at work : whether at the mill or at his Paris studio, when you switched on the light, you were at once connected to France Musique radio station.
In the spring of 1971, Michonze took part in a group exhibition at the Petit Palais of Geneva. From December to January 1972, he gave a solo exhibition « Birds, beasts and humans » at the Buckingham Gallery in London. As an introduction, the catalogue gave excerpts of Patrick Waldberg’s « Le pays de Gregoire Michonze ».
While in London, he began a new series of very large, light and colourful paintings, using mineral oil instead of turpentine, to a very matt, frescoe like effect. This technique, with no varnishing, left him greater freedom and became that of his later work. On a page of the catalogue of the exhibition of European Expressionnism at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, he wrote « Painting will be large or not at all ». The seventies seemed to him like a present from the Gods, after surviving in 1969.
He came back to Paris for the opening of Henry Miller’s 80th birthday exhibition, where they showed Robert Snyder’s « Henry Miller Odyssey », in which one can see part of Michonze’s interview by Miller at the rue de Seine studio.
At the mill, he began a series of large charcoal drawings, heightened with chalk or pastel, of very large heads or life size figures, often from life, on prepared manilla paper, that he pursued all through the last period of his life. His models were friends or passers-by, villagers, children and also a young girl, Noëlle, who stayed several summers at the mill.
His son Patrick, whose delicate pen and ink drawings were very beautiful, was now in a very preoccupying state of health. He needed psychiatric help, and for some years was in and out of different private hospitals, until he found a real place to live, where he could express himself, at the « Clinique de La Chesnaie », near Blois.
In 1973, Michonze was operated of a stomach ulcer that he had been suffering from for years. It may have had a beneficial effect on his mood, for all his life he had experienced terrible periods of despair, when he would be incapable of working, until the impulse to paint again was strong enough to bring back stability.
In 1974, he took up engraving and etching again, at the mill, where he had a hand press installed to do his own printing.
In november 1976, Una had to go to hospital for a fit of pneumonia. Lung cancer was diagnosed. She died on the 7th of August, 1977. From then on, Michonze worked regularly at springtime in Israël, summers were spent at the mill where Anna and Claudia would join him, autumns and winters in his Paris studio.
In 1978, an important retrospective exhibition of over a hundred paintings was organised by Dominique Daguet at the Thibaud de Champagne cultural center in Troyes, followed the next year by an exhibition of his charcoal and pastel drawings of the seventies. The exhibition had been prepared with his friend and model Erminia, in a new studio, rue Urbain IV in Troyes.
In 1980, he visited Florence, with two young women, who happened to be nurses, which he found very reassuring.
In 1982, he was working in Israël at large oblong drawings with many figures, and at colorful gouaches full of movement, at the mill and later in Paris. Michonze died of a heart attack on the 29th of December in his Paris studio at the age of 80.
His whole life was dedicated to his one passion : his art. In 1977, he wrote to Una : « I still want to learn to draw and paint. I am 75 years old, and I want to go to school. Therefore, I am young ».