Max Jacob a French artist, who was born Jewish and became a Roman Catholic, was arrested by the Gestapo and put into Orléans prison. He was then transferred to a holding camp in Drancy for transport to a concentration camp in Germany.
Max Jacob, an important French poet of the early 20th century, was born to Jewish parents in Quimper, Brittany, in1876. He became a leader of the avant-garde art scene after moving to Paris. Jacob was known for his playful wordplay, and his skill with prose poetry was illustrated in the collection Le Cornet à dés. His poems were set to music by François Poulenc. Also a painter, he lived in extreme poverty. Jacob met Pablo Picasso in 1901. They shared a studio and later lived three doors from each other in Paris.
Jacob had a vision of Jesus in 1909 in a landscape he had painted. He became a Catholic but struggled with homosexuality and heavy drinking. “He fervently believed in his new faith,” said author Sydney Levy, “but it did not affect his personality or his art. . . . Christianity tolerated his presence in its midst with difficulty.”
In 1921 he moved to the small village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, where he remained until the Gestapo arrested him in February 1944. They took him to a holding camp in Drancy, where he grew gravely ill and died on March 5, 1944.
Gabriel Aghion, who directed a movie about Jacob, holds Jacob’s friends, especially Picasso, responsible for his death. “All of his friends . . . could have saved him, but they didn’t,” Aghion said. “They spent the war drinking champagne.”
“There is no need to do anything,” Picasso said after Jacob’s arrest. “Max is an imp. He does not need us to fly away from his prison.”
Prayer: Thank you Lord for giving Max Jacob a vision of yourself. As a tortured soul who lived in tortured times, his gifts of art and poetry allowed him creative ways to express the search for beauty and truth. In you he found true peace, but in his life on this earth he struggled with his own weaknesses, and the evil that engulfed Europe. May his memory be a blessing, and his work live on in the art that expresses something of your eternal beauty. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Born to Jewish parents on July 12, 1876, in Quimper, France, Max Jacob became a leader of the avant-garde art scene after moving to Paris. Jacob was known for his playful wordplay, and his skill with prose poetry was illustrated in the collection Le Cornet à dés. Although he converted to Catholicism in 1915, Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo in early 1944 and died two weeks later in a prison camp.
Writer Max Jacob was born on July 12, 1876, in Quimper, France. The son of Jewish tailors and antique dealers, he felt the sting of anti-Semitism as a child. After studying at College La Tour-d’Auvergne, he stole money from his mother to move to Paris in 1897.
Jacob took a series of odd jobs after arriving in Paris, serving as an art critic, piano teacher and shopkeeper, among other professions. He also fell in with the avant-garde writers and artists who roamed the city at the turn of the century, becoming a close friend and roommate of Pablo Picasso.
Immersed in art during an era when symbolism, cubism, surrealism and other modernist forms were converging, Jacob borrowed from many of these styles without definitively belonging to any one category. He was, however, recognized as one of the leading practitioners of prose poetry, as demonstrated in his celebrated collection, Le Cornet à dés. Other noted poetic collections include Le Laboratoire Central and Poèmes de Morvan le Gaëlique, and in the prose-poetry hybrid La Défense de Tartufe, and other novels, plays and letters, he displayed a playful penchant for wordplay.
Jacob also cultivated a talent for visual art. Although he was far more renowned for his ability with words, he secured exhibitions in Paris and New York City for his drawings and paintings.
Jacob claimed to have had a vision of Christ in one of his paintings in 1909. He converted to Catholicism in 1915, with Picasso taking on the role of his godfather, although his conversion did little to stem his homosexual urges, as he had hoped.
Tired of the temptations of the bohemian lifestyle, Jacob moved to the Benedictine monastery at Saint Benoît-sur-Loire in 1921. He continued to travel and returned to Paris for extended stints, but spent the bulk of his time painting and writing at the monastery over the following two decades.
Death and Legacy
On February 24, 1944, Max Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo at Saint Benoît-sur-Loire. Weakened by advancing age and four days amid squalid conditions in Orleans prison, he died of pneumonia at Drancy transit camp on March 5, 1944.
Although Jacob is not remembered in the same regard as his former compatriot, Picasso, or other French poets such as Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud, he is nonetheless recognized as an important contributor to the early 20th century Parisian scene that sought to tear down existing ideals and redefine artistic concepts for successive generations.
Commonweal‘s February 27, 2009 issue had a short piece entitled “The Perfect Sinner” by Harold Bordwell. It was about Max Jacob, a French Jew born in Brittany, who was a painter, poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, who played an important role in the formative years of Cubism as well as in the new directions of modern poetry during the early 20th century. His poetry was made up of an amalgam of Jewish, Breton, Parisian and Roman Catholic elements.
Max Jacob alternated between a wildly bohemian lifestyle and periods of contemplation. He converted to Catholicism in 1915, after experiencing a vision of Christ a few years earlier. But his conversion did not save him from the Gestapo, who rounded him up and took him to Drancy internment camp. He died there of pneumonia on March 5, 1944, two days before he was scheduled to be sent to Auschwitz. He was 68. His body was eventually returned to his home of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans.
Saint-Benoit was the site of a celebrated abbey church. Max Jacob first came to Saint-Benoit in 1921, and stayed there periodically until 1937, when he settled down permanently, living a quietly religious life–early daily Mass, evening prayer, and working as a church guide.
Max Jacob reminds me of David, a “man after God’s own heart.” Sensuous, a sinner, each man experienced periods of prayful contemplation and penitence. But in their full and vivid life each also held God in a loved and honored place.
Max Jacob chose Saint-Benoit to escape his disorderly and worldly life–he was homosexual, he took drugs, he liked to play the clown–and, as his biographer Beatrice Mousli notes, to benearer to God and away from his temptations that he could never resist in Paris.
It was a very different life than his days in Paris, where his writings and gouache paintings led to friendships with Picasso, Jean Cocteau, anf Guillaume Apollinaire, among others. There were rumors that Jacob was a male lover of Picasso. “Oh, Picasso was absolutely having sex with Max Jacob. And everyone knew!”, said John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer. Even Picasso’s mistress, Fernande Olivier, noted upon first meeting Jacob that the two men were “toujours ensemble.”
In his journals, novelist Julian Green remembers how Max Jacob used to haunt the Cafe Select by night, and then the next morning hurry down the boulevard to Notre-Dame-des-Champs to confess his sins, with the priests hiding behind the church columns but knowing that one of them would eventually have to listen to the same sins they all knew by heart.
Green calls Max Jacob the perfect sinner because he was truly sorry for his sins, which didn’t prevent him from starting all over the next day.
En 1928, Max Jacob exécute une centaine d’illustrations sur les souffrances et la mort de Jésus. C’est par amitié pour Maurice Sachs qu’il fait ses dessins. C’est probablement en décembre 1925 que Max Jacob rencontre Maurice Sachs chez Jean Cocteau. C’est le 2 janvier 1926 que Sachs entre au séminaire. Il a dix-neuf ans, est charmant, mince, intelligent, ce n’est pas encore le Maurice Sachs que beaucoup connaîtront abîmé par le vol, l’alcool et la débauche. Max Jacob, quelques années plus tard, se brouillera jusqu’à la fin de ses jours avec lui, estimant que Maurice Sachs l’avait “poignardé dans la vie”.
Seuls quarante dessins seront publiés en 1928 par Maurice Sachs sous le titre “Visions des Souffrances et de la Mort de Jésus Fils de Dieu” édité Aux Quatre Chemins, Paris. Le dessin ci-dessus, devant faire partie du chapitre “Jésus dénudé”, ne fait pas partie du recueil. La signature et la date n’a été rajouté quelques années plus tard par Max Jacob, comme pour de nombreuses de ces œuvres; ce qui explique l’erreur de date. En effet, pour subsister, Max vendait quand il le pouvait à quelques amateurs des dessins restés dans ses cartons, les collectionneurs exigeant date et signature.
Poulenc knew Max Jacob from 1920, as he was very much part of the Parisian avant-garde scene at that time. The composer found these poems in No 22 of the review Commerce (Winter 1929) where twenty lyrics are printed under the Breton pseudonym of ‘Morven Le Gaëlique’. Poulenc selected five, sometimes changing their titles: Chanson bretonne was simply published as Chanson, as was Souric et Mouric. Berceuse was in fact originally Berceuse de la petite servante, linking songs iii and iv to the same character. In his JdmM Poulenc’s special fondness for these songs, and for Jacob, is clearly expressed.
“Chanson bretonne” is best described by the composer himself: ‘The scene is the market place of Guidel in Brittany one summer morning. A peasant girl recounts, very simply, her misfortunes.’ The middle of the song offers Poulenc’s most extended passage of bird music in his mélodies, a succession of trills and grace notes. Mention of a chicken dancing with a little cat adds an air of unreality to a scenario that in other ways seems convincingly, even aggressively, down to earth—but that is Max Jacob for you. In some ways this is a scene that might have been painted by a Breton incarnation of the Russian Marc Chagall.
“Cimetière” is an enchanting waltz of great tenderness, a French Allerseelen (lighter-hearted of course) where the singer envisages herself buried in a country cemetery and visited by her relatives and her sailor lover. Grocery shops near to the cemetery used to sell ready-made wreaths for visits such as these, ‘painted iron and decorated with satin and pearls’ as Bernac describes the commercialism of religious kitsch. This is the kind of bad taste which Poulenc loved to subject, affectionately of course, to the refining fire of his own musical inspiration.
“La petite servante” is influenced, says the composer, by Musorgksy, but also clearly by the Stravinsky of Mavra and Les noces. Russia here meets Brittany in the almost medieval depth of its faith and superstition. The kind of incantation hurled out at the beginning of the song would not be out of place during an era of witch burnings and ducking-stools. The existence of the devil as a real person with a pitchfork is not in doubt. On the last page, where the girl at last allows herself to dream of something nice-a husband who is not too drunk or abusive-the composer allows himself at last a truly Poulencian turn of legato phrasing and harmony, having become bored with playing at being Russian.
In “Berceuse”, says Poulenc, ‘everything is topsy-turvy: the father is at mass, the mother at a tavern. A waltz rhythm takes the place of a cradle song. It is redolent of cider and the acrid smell of the thatched cottages.’ This is a companion piece to A Charm (Quiet, sleep!) from Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies: both songs feature the baby-sitter from hell, here a beggar woman’s daughter, not at all enamoured of children. The song’s closing verse has a charming insouciance: she would rather be shrimping, or cooking a bisque, than remain indoors with a disobligingly sick brat.
“Souric et Mouric” is another song where, despite the Breton provenance of the poetry, Stravinsky’s Russia and Poulenc’s Paris meet in the middle. The angularity of the opening vocal line suggests mechanical music, the sinister spinning of a spider, and Poulenc admits as much in JdmM—he sees this music as a ‘counting song’ to be delivered as fast as possible. The second half of the song (from ‘Chantez, les rainettes’) is an early example, to an even more pronounced degree than the end of La petite servante, of what might be termed ‘real Poulenc’—one of the composer’s seductive nocturnes where the tempo retreats from the furore of the vertiginous opening, and sensuously chimes with the movement of the stars and the call of the frogs. This is genuinely touching and almost completely original music, with only the ghost of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex haunting the music’s calm and radiant gravity.