Joann Sfar's idiosyncratic biography of the early 20th century painter Jules Pascin has been critiqued in some circles for glorifying the sexual conquests of male artists and buffing up that kind of macho narrative. Upon reading Pascin, I found the opposite to be true: this was a profoundly sad and meditative study about an artist searching for something that would ever and always be out of his grasp. The other thing to keep in mind about this book is that biographies tend to have autobiographical qualities, as the biographers often tend to seek out and empathize with their subjects, be it a deliberate act or a subconscious one. I see Pascin as a deeply meditative look at an artist who was a clear aesthetic influence on Sfar, digging deep into trying to figure out what made him tick, what made him think, what made him create and ultimately what he feared most. If anything, the book seems a deliberate rejection of the image of the macho artist and toxic masculinity in general.
One example is Pascin meeting young Ernest Hemingway (the patron saint of macho artists) and humiliating him simply be calling out exactly what he knew Hemingway wanted: to not just have sex with one of the two women in Pascian's company, but to act as the white knight savior. In another example, one of Pascin's friends in the book is a gangster named Toussaint. He is the embodiment of the use of force to get one's way, but he hangs around Pascin because he's jealous of the painter's power of creation. Sfar is careful not to elevate what Pascin does over Toussaint's brutality; instead, there's a telling sequence where Pascin talks about how drawing is a kind of sexual substitute, a way of grasping at life and creating it on one's own and doing whatever one wants with it. In the philosophical discussions of art Pascin has with other painters like Antanas and Soutine, the question of just how to bring life to an image is the most crucial aspect of art. It's not just a matter of simultaneity on multiple planes like in Cubism, but rather an attempt at rendering all aspects of a subject in a phenomenological manner. Or as Antanas says, "You have to walk all the way around it to get the full picture" in order to get many viewpoints to resolve in a single image. The ability to do so, Pascin seems to be arguing, is no more or less noble or remarkable than seducing someone or beating them up.
This gets to the heart of the tragedy of Pascin as a character: he is desperately searching for something because he's been broken for a long time, but can't get it through either sex or art. Contrast Pascin to his friends Soutine or Marc Chagall, especially in the scene where all three get together for Yom Kippur. As a Jewish person, Sfar has spent much of his career exploring what it means to be a Jew, both in a religious sense and in an ethnic sense. He's explored many different ethnic variations and traditions surrounding Judaism, and his characters have engaged in the language of the religion, which is the language of debate. The debate, and the holiday itself, which is the day of atonement, revealed interesting things about all three men. Chagall was clearly leading the healthiest life, with a loving wife and a sense of purpose that embraced the power of the aesthetic without being consumed by it. Soutine was a misanthrope who was all too aware of his misanthropy and had come to accept it as he indulged his artistic obsessions.
Pascin told a long story about a time when he was a child and stole from his father in order to visit a brothel. Unlike his friends, who had hard early lives and risked everything for their art, Pascin was dismissive of his own ability. As would be revealed later, he simply wanted to be better at fucking than his father, wanted the power notoriety that going to a brothel would give him in school, and didn't care about the consequences. All throughout telling the story, Pascin angered Chagall with hilarious blasphemies, until he reached the end of the story, when he revealed that another man was blamed for stealing the money and he hanged himself out of humiliation. That was an obvious flashpoint for him that sent him down a path mixed with desperation and a love-hate relationship with art and sex. He became great at both (" a true pervert", his ex would say), having sex with men and women alike, as a kind of unspoken, eternal contest he had with himself and his father. Drawing and sex were two sides of the same coin, one leading to the other in a feedback loop.
Sfar's art has never looked better. It loosens up so much on some pages as to become almost abstracted; it's deeply expressive and packs a relentless emotional punch. At the same time, much about the story and his visual approach is funny, filthy and whimsical. Pascin externalized his fears through a razor-sharp wit and and relentless charismatic manner. He was much more a personality than his other artist friends and was resigned to the self-pitying misanthrope Soutine coming around and begging him to help him in the social realm. The women in the story range from naive to brilliant, with other historical figures like Kike de Montparnasse having key roles and engaging in the same kind of philosophical discussions as Pascin. For Pascin, some of them mean little to him and some (like the married Lucy) are loved with all he can give. It is clear that in many respects, they remain as much a mystery to him (if a familiar, comfortable mystery) as they were the first time he visited that brothel. He was chasing an experience he could never have, creating art to scratch an itch that could never be satisfied. Sfar helps create that sense of inner turbulence by varying his line: thicky and brushy on some pages, clear line on others, open layouts on some pages, grids on others, gray-scale on some pages, spotting blacks on others, cartoony on some pages, naturalistic and grittily detailed on others. It's an affectionate but clear-eyed take on an artist, warts and all, and the kind of questions about aesthetics that vexed Pascin and clearly vex Sfar as well.