From the first I knew that Pierre Argillet was one of those rare creatures who follow Oscar Wilde’s advice to “always be a little improbable”.
We were greeted at the door of the Chateau by Marie-Claude, Pierre’s assistant and caretaker. A warm welcome was received by Philippe (the Baron Philippe duNoyer) and (the Baroness) Ghislaine and I was greeted with great cordiality. We were shown into Pierre’s study to wait while Marie-Claude fetched the famous publisher and photographer.
After about ten minutes, Marie-Claude came back down the hall pushing Pierre in a wheel chair. He was heavily swathed in blankets and his head was resting on his chest. “He has sunk very much,” Ghislaine whispered. Aging was to be expected because Pierre had recently celebrated his 84th birthday with a party, the invitations to which exhibited a photograph of Pierre in a coffin with the printed words, “Come and see of I’m still alive.”
They stopped a few feet in front of us and there was a minute of uncomfortable silence and then Pierre sprang up, threw off the blankets, kicked the wheel chair back down the hall and shouted, “Not yet!” That was the signal for the fun to begin.
We sat in the study/office for about and hour and a half talking about Salvador Dali, with whom Pierre had worked and cooperated on print editions for fifty years. We talked about specific publishing projects. Pierre told many Dali stories, showed us printing plates and documentation, photographs and memorabilia. Then we toured the crypt of the caste where Pierre’s collection of Daliana and artworks comprised the Museum of Surrealism. After collecting the works of Futerists and Dadaist, Pierre had concentrated on the Surrealists and Salvador Dali–who had been expelled from the Surrealist Group by Andre Breton.
Pierre, having discussed many print projects with Dali, considered both preliminary and finished drawings and then helped the Master bring his ideas to graphic reality as etchings and drypoints, had many things to show us. He retained an extensive collection of original unique Dali drawings, watercolors and other creations. He and I had extensive discussions about printmaking techniques and the artist’s practices and preferences. Our collegial conversations were uniquely educational.
In one large room was an assemblage of Dalinian objects, including the famous piano with the Dali-painted lid and a faucet on the side that could pour water into a tray in which the piano stood. There too was the life-size wax Salvador Dali that had been made by Madame Tussaude. I realized that the room was a recreation of the installation that had been created for the exhibition at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Of particular interest to me were the photographs and films with which Pierre had recorded the various surrealist “happenings” that he and Dali had staged at the Chateau. There were the six liveried footmen riding their horses up the grand staircase, the “Marie Antoinette” actress in the Orangerie, the hot air balloon and the line of priests carrying a tremendously long snake. These were all events I was familiar with and I deeply regret not being able to participate in them. The only thing that could top that experience would be if my companion was Kurt Vonnegut. (Novelist and brother of my God father, Bernard Vonnegut)
When we all agreed that we were ready to go to lunch, we left the chateau and drove into the Fontainbleau Forest to an ancient inn with tremendous walk-in fireplaces were rows of spits loaded with meats and fowl of all kinds turned over the wood fires. Here we were at Barbizon where so many artists had been inspired to paint. The scenes out the inn’s windows all looked like works by Diaz de la Penna and Corot.
We were joined for lunch by a great, friendly bear of a man named Bruno. He is Philippe duNoyer’s cousin and after lunch we drove to his farm which features ancient buildings built in a defensive square. The chapel was built in 1200 AD. As I pointed out to Bruno, the people who built it had no idea there was a Western Hemisphere and had never heard of potatoes, corn, chilies, chocolate or squash.
Bruno has found a very ingenious way to make money fro his farm. He owns the only mountain in that part of otherwise totally flat France. On top at one end is a picnic area with the only views to be found for many miles. At the other end, the mountain is still under construction for, after all, it is built of the solid waste from many towns and villages in a fifty-mile radius. An access road carries a constantly long line of garbage trucks, each one of which pays Bruno to dump its load. The mountain is a dirt-covered landfill!
Not only does Bruno make money from the garbage trucks and admission to the picnic area, but the mountain is equipped with pipes that siphon the methane off so it can be used to generate electricity which supplies all of the farm’s needs and is sold into the national electric grid.
Unfortunately, since I’m writing in Mexico, I am not in a position to post photographs of Pierre, Philippe, Ghislaine, Bruno, the chateau, the inn and Bruno’s farm.
Next Time: The Argillet Connection, Part III will tell you about the next generation of the Argillet family and some internal conflicts and questionable practices.