|"The cat won't change its habits," Utter warned me,|
| "You're making a damn fool of yourself, and you know it!" I remained silent, ignoring the obvious truth of the statement. I knew that Maurice would never be different, that the anxieties, the pain, were permanent, no matter what I did. His return from Sannois brought the feeling I had experienced when he was released from Saint-Anne. I felt a sense of hopelessness, of watching a scenario already written out, one that inexorably moved toward its climax. I was drained, my disposition was sour, and my nerves were at the breaking point. Everything else matched my feelings as the money dribbled in from Libaude, life seemed pointless, a ridiculous distortion, like a bad cinema you are forced to watch. I tried to paint, my mind far away, yearning to be free, to pursue my own interests. I fantasized of an existence devoted to my own choices, but the sombre realities always came floating back. There was no freedom, that was reality, and the prospect loomed ominously before me ....
Maurice was now in his early thirties, a mature man, but the problems of his adolescence had projected into his middle years. Dependence on others was more evident now--possibly they were even more critical--and functioning, normally, at an adult level, in society was impossible. He could not make it on his own, he was simple-minded, driven by an alcoholic dependency which gave him no peace, and it was apparent to everyone, myself included, that the downward path would continue unabated, that to expect changes, especially those I had hoped for from the beginning, was unrealistic, to say the least.
People continued to be bowled over by the contrast of the man and the art, a phenomenon that became more incongruous as Maurice's notoriety as a pathological inebriate increased. By a weird quirk of nature, he produced painting lyrically sensitive to his subject, and totally foreign to his lifestyle. Critics like Vauxcelles, Astruc, Coquiot, Georges-Michel, Jourdain, Mirbeau, Tabarant, and others, were astonished that the art didn't exhibit the slightest indication of the everyday trauma of his routines. His character, they all agreed, was a dichotomous entity, torn by violence, by alcoholism, by a physical battering which threatened his life. Maurice was an individual: embarked on a hazardous journey which portended all kinds of frightening possibilities. It was a perilous course, fraught with hidous incidents, yet as Vauxcelles had written, "If you looked at what emerged from the paradox of M. Utrillo, it was, no doubt, sordid and depraved, but on the other hand, it was also creative and grand, depending, of course, on your viewpoint of such things."
As Maurice's painting style evolved, attempts at still-life and figurative motifs were discarded in favor of scenes which showed the old streets and structures of the Montmartre. What he did so well in these canvasses, was missing when he experimented, and the infallible instinct, so sure, failed him completely. The viewpoint became ordinary, he fumbled, the beginner again, confused by his ineptitude. Maurice, to give him credit, immediately recognized this was the way it was and that nothing could be done about it. He wisely accepted the limitations, staying within the guidelines which worked for him, avoiding those which did not.
Painting continued to be a marginal aspect of his daily routines, done only when his pockets were empty, and his addiction sharpened his thirst. His working habits, if you wanted to stretch it a bit, took place amidst the most extraordinary disorder, and it was absolutely incredible that first class art was created in such an improbable environment. The room above the Cafe Belle Gabrielle was ill-lit, cluttered with refuse, and sparsely furnished. Next to the cafe-type chair which served as an easel, was a small table covered with postcards Maurice had purchase at the pharmacy on the Rue Norvin. When a painting began, he chose the first postcard to catch his eye, laid out the dimensions with a ruler to get accurate lines of perspective, seeking a harmonious arrangement which satisfied him. When this was completed, Maurice mixed, on a palette already in disorder, great globs of new paint, sometimes entire tubes, getting considerable paint on his hands, face, and clothing. The procedure was followed by blending of color, making them appear hopelessly jumbled--reds, blues, greens, yellows, ochres, blacks and siennas, in wild juxtaposition. As he painted, however, order emerged, the soups became thicker, transformed into flashing whites and companion grays, a conglomeration that magically became a Sacre-Coeur or an Eglise Saint Marguerite a Montmartre.
Through the trying period following the phase at Sannois, the production line, stimulated by his thirst, remained consistent. The picture quality, even with the chaotic conditions, was as good as it ever had been. This is not to say that Maurice didn't have his bad moments like everyone else, but if he did neither the critics or the public made a fuss about it, a fact that had a lot of people scratching their heads, wondering again how a boozer could get away with it. Dealers took whatever they could get their hands on, actively pursuing either Libaude or my son, and they were willing to take the work from others even if dishonest means had been used. Whoever was involved: dealers from the major galleries, or small operators, they were delighted as Utrillos moved off their walls almost before they hung them. For some reason, certain galleries, like Bernheim-Jeune, or Durand-Ruel, prohibited business with Libaude, preferring to deal with secondary entrepreneurs, even fly-by-night characters, who may have obtained a canvas from Maurice, or perhaps, gotten it from one of his drinking buddies. In this way, a whole system of dealers, at different levels, all working up to the top, was formed, each taking his profit, with the big pay-off materializing for the one who had the best contacts with those who were willing to pay the top price.
The source of all this business activity, considering the precarious state of his life, was remarkably dependable. His fame, the notoriety of his lifestyle, went along with the consistency of the production line. As his reputation spread, Maurice acknowledged what was written about him, but he never accepted it as a personal compliment, seeing the talent he displayed as a gift from above, a fact for which he, deserved no credit. Tabarant, who had continued his early interest in Maurice, said that such a statement was entirely accurate, in his opinion, and simply indicated a truth that he had often stated, which was that the "true base of art lies deep within the instinctive nature of each artist, and Utrillo, in making the remark, was merely reaffirming an accepted philosophical belief." Tabarant had gone on to say that "asking questions about art was far less important than the art itself." In his reviews for L'Evenement, Tabarant constantly referred to the fragility of Maurice's position as a painter: "He is a vulnerable treasure in a dangerous world, a treasure threatened by the contradictions of a dreadful lifestyle which may destroy him before he reaches his potential. In my mind, it is the responsibility of the French State to protect him from himself; how it does this, who will shoulder the burden of getting the job done, is a difficult question, and there will be those who complain that it is a grave injustice that one man, singled out from all others, should be given special treatment before the tribunal of justice. This is a fair criticism, but I still say that we are dealing with a case where it can be argued that certain conditions warrant an innovative approach which can satisfy everyone involved that a just decision, considering all viewpoints, can be reached, one that does not, necessarily, follow the letter of the law."
Maurice, in the minds of people like Tabarant, had passed beyond conventional assessment, from being an inebriate, put on by the public and the authorities, to being a special commodity, one of a kind. He was the precious child in an adult world, surviving because of a few individuals who had a particular interest in him. The impulse he could not conquer, was suicidal, a force stretching outside of his capacity to deal with it. The connection with the practical real world, was in his painting, bringing him to the pinnacle and the lowest level of life simultaneously. It was the incongruity of this which made his functioning possible; a kind of exchange which justfied his existence, preventing extinction, extending his right to live despite his pathological state, his alcoholism, and his anti-social attitudes.
Late in the year, 1912, Maurice was arrested for breaking the gaslight outside Marie Vizier's Cafe Belle Gabrielle, on the Rue Leval. As he was being dragged to the lockup, handcuffed to a police officer, Maurice urinated on the leg of his captor, and almost at the same moment, he exposed himself to several horrified women who were passing on the street. Despite Vizier's efforts to get the officer to forget the incident, Maurice was held for two days at the jailhouse, being released finally, when the judge hearing his case, ruled that Maurice had to pay compensation to the government for damages to the gaslight, amounting to twenty-five francs, and that his punishment for resisting arrest and indecent exposure was the two days he had been incarcerated. Again, the law had leaned backwards, giving Maurice a slap on the hand for crimes which would have been dealt with much more severely, had it been one of the other drunks on the hill.
Maurice's painting of the arrest, a scene outside the Cafe Belle Gabrielle at the corner of the Rue Leval and the Rue des Lions, showing the cops in the act of apprehending him, was a casual record of a routine occurence, as far as he was concerned. He never made a big thing out of his encounters with the men of the law; in his mind, they were merely doing their duty; he respected them for this, and as far as I know, he never bore a grudge against the cops on the beat, despite his long criminal record which went as far back as 1906, or even further.
Somewhere, in the dim recesses of Maurice's mind, he had reached an accomodation with the authorities, seeing the rapprochement as a system of exchange for the life he had chosen to live. What the system required of the officers, was as natural to them, as the intoxication process was to him. He had worked this out carefully in his head like a diplomat negotiating for his country against another country. At the conclusion, as he visualized it, a deal was a deal, and along the way there had to be room for compromise. In a perverse way, the police represented the walls which were continually closing in on his life; they gave Maurice, just by their presence, boundaries that enabled him to figure out where he was and where he was going to go. His adjustment, one that worked, came from the knowledge he possessed of the extent of the law, and just how far its exponents were willing to stretch the interpretation as it applied to him.
Maurice was well aware that the acts that he committed were wrong no matter how you looked at it: social law, religious law, or civil law, he knew that what he was doing was in violation of all of them. As I have said, it was the breaking of religious law which caused him the greatest anxiety. When he added up the price for sinning, as the Church warned, it scared him half to death; he could face man-made punishment; he could survive whatever that implied, but the idea of eternal damnation in the fires of hell, justice before his God, was a future Maurice wanted to avoid if it was possible to do so.
He brooded over the effect his sins would have on the diety; this was not something he could see, touch, or feel; the unworldliness of heaven and the entity of God, made it impossible for him to explain his position, to show his side of the situation, and, above all, he didn't want the Lord to know only the bad side, to overlook how seriously he took his relationship with the highest power in the universe.
He agonized over this because he believed his talent had singled him out for special attention; he was one of the chosen, and this being true, he was headed for deep trouble; God's wrath on his favored individuals, Maurice was convinced, was much more ferocious than on an average person. This lived with Maurice day and night and each act which he thought might incur heavenly anger, tortured him when he became sober enough to reflect on it.
Maurice could never understand why others, God included, puzzled over his choices in life: "What I do, I do!" he complained, "I cannot help myself!" He had grasped this fact long before the doctors at Saint Anne and Sannois. They functioned through medical procedures, while Maurice knew from his deepest instincts that what he was, was cast in iron, and it was useless to try to change it. Alcohol, in his mind, was not the demon altering his personality as the system stated, it was not the poison coloring everything black, and it certainly wasn't an evil thing, as most people insisted. For him, it was quite the opposite, a catalyst which created better existence, a world where life was more enjoyable than the one he endured on earth during his rare moments of sobriety. Society, naturally, rejected this because they believed Maurice, in his cups, was a threat to life and property, and no one could blame them for that. Anybody in their right mind would agree that the justice of the situation was all on the side of law and order, that decent citizens should not be put on by a pathological drunk no matter what redeeming qualities he might have.
So, despite the abundance of Montmartrois who would prefer to see Maurice permanently lodged in an asylum or a prison, there were those who thought otherwise, allowing Maurice, through their exercise of political influence, to perpetuate his doomsday ritual. It was unfortunate, depending on your viewpoint, that a small cadre of people, those interested in making money on Maurice's art, and those interested in the art and the man, could, by their actions, hasten the alcoholic process which was destroying the human being they were trying to save. Because of these people, Maurice began to feel he was invulnerable, beyond the law, free to indulge himself as much as he wished, which was exactly what he was doing.
The crazy path of my life was irrevocably tied to the insanity this represented, to a responsibility for the acts of a savage drunk who had no conscience about his sins of commission, to the reality that the situation, as it existed, would be with me for the rest of my life. Like Maurice, I had no real choices, I suffered the slings and arrows of his anti-social attitudes, as well as my own considerable shortcomings. I paid the penalty along with him; the both of us were poor fish trying to swim on dry ground. The more each of us tried to reach our goals: he wanted intoxication, I wanted art; the more we seemed to stand still, immobilized by a set of circumstances which denied us everything except going on.
In his limited way, Maurice was a real pragmatist; he knew what he could get away with: the means of getting around the laws of the system, and he wisely stuck to it. Life was a puzzle for him, one which demanded a solution, the solution was alcohol, nothing existed beyond this key which turned the motor on. He paid for his intoxication with his art: the two together were a workable equation--each sustaining the other. The price exacted by civil law was incarceration, with the threat of permanent incarceration always imminent, and constant surveillance. The shaky accomodation satisfied Maurice, although, obviously, it didn't satisfy others, but as in all things, nobody gets all they want, and eventually there were compromises all the way around.
After the first few fumbling attempts to paint directly from nature in the company of Quizet, Mautice had abandoned outdoor painting because of his enemies on the hill. They were constantly on the lookout for him; sought him out in the most malicious manner; and if they came upon him in the street it was usually a very ugly affair. Quizet, who was a slight, shy, non-combative type, was terrified of these tough characters, and fled precipitously when he saw them coming, leaving his painting equipment behind. This left Maurice to face the bullies alone, which he invariably did, rather courageously, I thought, a choice which generally left him stretched out cold beside his scattered art materials. A few incidents like this, convinced him that it was far safer to work indoors; he could drink comfortably as he worked, and the postcards he used for reference provided him with everything he needed to turn out paintings.