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When La Belle Époque Got Ugly: A Personal Brush With History

van gogh

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by van Gogh

La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Age) was a period of great artistic innovation and controversy that began approximately in 1890 and ended exactly on July 28, 1914.

That’s the date World War I began when Austria invaded Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of the Austrian emperor’s nephew and heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  

The date also ended an era also known as the Gay Nineties. That period of “irrational exuberance” in Alan Greenspan’s words began in the 19th century and extended into the early 20th until a madman and a senile one, Kaisers Franz Joseph and Wilhelm II, turned beauty into ugliness.

There was nothing “belle” or beautiful about the global cataclysm that killed 20 million and the pandemic of Spanish Flu that killed another 20 million shortly after the war. My grandmother was a casualty of the world-wide epidemic when my mother was an infant.

One of the many artistic movements that made the epoch beautiful was Impressionism, which began a decade or two earlier. Impressionism’s exemplars were Monet and Renoir, among dozens of others. Van Gogh and Gauguin represented a sister school or subdivision called Primitivism, which took its inspiration from folk art.

The revolutionary new artistic style created minor revolutions as art-lovers loathed Impressionism and other avant-garde styles seriously enough to riot. Some zealous aesthetes spit on what would become masterpieces of Impressionism while others, secular iconoclasts vandalized them.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, displayed more than 1,000 paintings by Impressionists, Cubists and Fauvists.
The 1913 exhibit at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City drew art-lovers and literally combative art critics, professional and amateur.

No less a connoisseur than Teddy Roosevelt complained, “That’s not art!” without specifying which painting didn't deserve the label.

A professional critic agreed and compared Duchamp’s Modernist masterpiece to “an explosion at a shingle factory.” As for these critics, they may not have recognized art, but they knew what they did not like.

Among the other reviled and revered artists whose work graced the exhibit were Picasso and my personal favorite, Edward Hopper, creator of grim urban landscapes like his iconic Nighthawks (1942) which realistically portrayed a diner and has become the logo of the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) Channel.

Despite Hopper’s neorealistic style, he was almost as loathed as the more experimental Impressionists and the loony Dadaists, whose nonsensical French name translates as “giddy up, little horsey!” Dadaism is the aesthetic equivalent of nihilism and anarchism. “Dada” is also idiomatically rendered as a child’s unintelligible speech.

Critics of the avant-garde would have been shocked to learn that less than a century later, the magnificent paintings they spat on would fetch prices of more than $100 million.

The highest price, $82.5 million, at the time (1990) for a painting was Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890). The gloomy portrait of the physician who cared for the artist before his death that same year was purchased by a Japanese tycoon, who died only six years after the purchase. After van Gogh’s death, the painting was sold by his sister-in-law in 1897 for 300 francs ($58 today) .

The Japanese multimillionaire’s will stipulated that the painting was to be cremated along with his corpse, a literal case of “taking it with you.”

Art preservationists saved the work from an artistic version of suttee, the Asian Indian custom in which a widow throws herself on her husband’s funeral pyre voluntarily or by order of her in-laws. The British outlawed the practice in 1829.

Artistic expression in the past approximated political correctness today, only more vigorously, often violently, as when self-appointed art critics beat up security guards at the Armory Show of 1913.

New forms of painting up to and including the Third Reich’s exhibit of so-called degenerate, i.e., modern art, were fightin’ and dyin’ words, literally.

La Belle Époque was “belle” in a more sinister way. The Gay Nineties, despite its forgotten depression in 1893 that was almost as severe as the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, celebrated conspicuous consumption and vulgar ostentation.

Robber barons like Rockefeller and Jay Gould, who created the panic that caused the Panic of 1893, the worst depression until the 1930s, were as reviled as today’s Monsters of the Universe like Bernie Madoff, Ponzi-schemer par excellence, and the late Enron felon-in-chief, Ken Lay.

Besides the magnificent advances in music and other art forms, the Gay Nineties and the following decade and a half were genuinely gay for nouveaux riches robber barons, who survived and flourished despite or because of the economic downturn of 1893.

Despite their negative nickname, robber barons were lionized by the public and attracted media attention that afflicts movie stars today. The 2009 film, The Last Station, slyly satirizes proto-paparazzi who camp outside the country estate of Leo Tolstoy.

Whenever the author of War and Peace emerges from his rural Palladian villa, Yasnaya Polyana (Clear Glade), photographers with hand-cranked movie cameras record Tolstoy's every move and argument with his wife and his business partner. Grainy footage of the novelist and his wife is available on the Internet.

Tolstoy was one of those rare and blessed genius whose greatness was recognized in his own lifetime, as The Last Station humorously dramatized.

Shaw was another master who lived long enough to be venerated, unlike van Gogh, who committed suicide in part because he sold only one painting for a few francs before he took his life. 

This lengthy examination of La Belle Époque is a digression from the main event, the story that inspired the digression in order to put the tale in its historical and emotional contexts.*

In the 1980s, I had a neighbor who was a sweet older gentleman I’ll call Mr. Berecz so that his relatives don’t sue me for grand theft, another tale that will be told later.

Mr. B was a Hungarian Jew who had been deported to Auschwitz in 1944. He not only survived but thrived after the war as a wealthy Beverly Hills art dealer. His condominium was filled with museum-quality pieces, and he lived in fear of burglars.

Another neighbor in the building had her Chagall triptych/screen ripped from its frame by thieves who failed to dislodge the work of art, but left razor marks.
Mr. Berecz’ prized piece was one half of a pair of Tang Dynasty lions.

When I asked what had happened to the lion’s mate, he explained without anger. After all, he had endured far worse like Auschwitz and torture by the Gestapo.
“The maid broke it while she was dusting.” Its companion piece was beyond the salvation of Krazy Glue.”

I had previously given Mr. B a copy of my book about the Opium Wars so he asked me to give him professional advice about a book proposal he had recently written.

The title was fine: La Belle Époque. But the subtitle was an embarrassment: 1890 to 1920. The Age of Beauty got ugly in 1914 when World War I replaced old world beauty with state-of-the art carnage. Unfortunately, Mr. B inaccurately added six years to the beautiful period before the war.

I rarely correct people’s grammar or factual errors because I believe “constructive criticism” is a cruel lie that might better be characterized as “destructive.”

During our surprisingly intimate poolside conversation between two friends who were more like friendly acquaintances, Mr. B was alternately expansive and evasive about his nightmare years at Auschwitz.

Before his deportation from Hungary, he had been interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo for two days although he had no secrets or anti-Nazi partisans to give up.

He was tortured for no other reason than his Jewishness, a faith he had abandoned. His survival may have been due to his age at the time, 14, which made him eligible for death in excruciating slow-motion by slave labor and disease.

As an author and journalist who has written extensively about the Holocaust and the Third Reich. I inconsiderately stopped reading his proposal and began an impertinent interrogation of my own by asking him what type of slave labor he performed.

The usually garrulous gentleman with Old World manners and charm suddenly clammed up. My curiosity overcame my New World rude manners and I persisted, rephrasing the question – a trick I stumbled on as an investigative journalist dealing with stonewalling celebrities.

Question #1: How old are you? Answer: None of your business!

Question #2: Were you old enough to remember where you were when Kennedy was shot?

Question #3: How old were you in 1963?

I learned that trick from Truman Capote and once managed to get Gore Vidal to tell me what his two autobiographies and an authorized biography had failed to mention. The information was also apparently missing from Vidal’s daily diary, which he had made available to his biographer.

When I asked Vidal if he had been physically abused by his alcoholic mother, he demurred. I rephrased the question a few times, and he said, “Does getting burned with a cigarette when I was six by my mother count?”

It was the quote that made the article which was published in newspapers and magazines around the world.

I didn’t rephrase my question about slave labor when I interrogated Mr. B. Instead, I asked a follow-up question: Why he was willing to describe something as literally painful as torture by the Gestapo, but wouldn’t give me his job description at Auschwitz.

He flat out refused to answer, and for a change, since I didn’t have to write a 2,000-word article on our chat, I gave up.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the look of what I felt was one of shame spoke volumes wordlessly.

I can only guess the source of his guilt, which wasn’t I suspect the typical survivor’s guilt. Some death camp inmates occupied the innermost circle of Dante’s divine tragedy.

These workers were called Sonderkommandos (“special units” in German) Their horrific task might tastelessly be called (human) waste disposal -- dragging corpses out of a gas chamber, yanking out their gold teeth and fillings, then carrying the bodies off to a crematorium.

The evidence of mass murder went up in smoke that billowed from the crematoria’s chimneys. Residents who lived nearby claimed they knew nothing of the horrors taking place outside their doorstep. Truthful people, typically farmers familiar with the smell of death, recognized the smoke’s human origins.

Like the victims of the gas chambers, Sonderkommandos eventually “escaped” up the camp’s chimneys, usually after three months on the job.

They were liquidated to eliminate eyewitnesses to genocide. The strategy was ineffective. There was too much evidence, six million pieces of it, to vaporize.
By the time the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, thousands of corpses were stacked up like cord wood. Eisenhower visited Dachau in the American Zone of Occupation to serve as a witness for future Holocaust deniers.

At the U.S. government’s request, Alfred Hitchcock offered filmed evidence of Eisenhower’s experience. His iconic newsreel footage shows bulldozers shoving corpses into mass graves.

The footage, which frequently airs on the History Channels, is almost impossible to watch, like a car crash you slow down with embarrassment to get a better look.
I presumed my friend had been one of the wretched Sonderkommandos who somehow managed to elude his expiration date with the crematorium.

As much as I love a friendly intellectual argument, especially with academics who don’t feel inadequate when corrected about a mistake, I couldn’t bring myself at first to correct the second date in Mr. B’s subtitle.

He may have unwillingly collaborated in the extermination of his co-religionists, and I felt he had suffered enough without my saying, “Buddy, La Belle Époque ended six years earlier than your proposal claims.”

But my sympathy and anxiety about adding more grief to a life that had been filled with it gave way to a more rational decision.

Any knowledgeable publisher of coffee table art books like Mr. B’s incorrectly dated proposal would have tossed the ms. as soon as he read “1920.”
My silence about the budding author’s error would have spared him minor embarrassment but possibly cause major disappointment as an acquisitions editor dismissed his uninformed proposal, ending his writing career before it started.

I set aside my guilt and gently suggested he change “1920” to “1914” without the preceding pretentious explanation this article offers.

My fear that the same frown that appeared when I asked him about his work at Auschwitz would reappear didn’t materialize.

Instead, he thanked me and used his blue pencil to correct the subtitle’s date.
His gratitude extended amazingly beyond words. He later gave me his lonely Tang lion, lying that without its mate it was worthless. Plus, he didn’t really like the Tang Dynasty.

An art appraiser corroborated my suspicion about Mr. B’s generous lie. The lion even without its mate would fetch $500,000 or more in today’s depressed art market.

I will of course never sell that precious gift which is priceless to me. It’s the only piece of “Nazi memorabilia” I will ever own and never part with until my death.

I’ve willed the ferocious little cat to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem with a request that a plaque accompany it that says, “In loving memory of Mr. B, whose ‘survivor’s guilt’ was undeserved but understandable.”

*Some identifying traits of the people and events have been slightly altered to honor the dead and protect the living, especially me, from Mr. B’s possibly litigious relatives who might want “their” little lion returned to the family.

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The little lion.

Long may "the little lion" survive, as a memory to an heroic man, and a great story.

Thanks for sharing this with us Frank.