Film, First World War, Photography

La vie obscure de Henri-Pierre Roché

The photograph that I love the most is a black and white image of two male boxers dancing arm in arm, in graceful harmony, one having discarded his gloves. It was taken by the French photographer Raymond Cauchetier in a gymnasium in Paris in 1962 on the set of Francois Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim. It shows two actors from the film, Oskar Werner (left, Jules) and Henry Serre (right, Jim). Cauchetier was the photographer of the French New Wave and had been with the press corps in Indochina before returning to Paris and befriending film critics and filmmakers. He was on the sets of these films as a photojournalist as his interest was in the film process, rather than taking stills for publicity.

Werner and Serre were waiting in the gymnasium to film an old-style French boxing match when a radio was switched on and a Strauss waltz started. Werner discarded his gloves and an impromptu dance began; Cauchetier as a good photojournalist was quick to shoot. One glove lies inert in the light from the window whilst the two men hover in the air; they seem to be singing. These pugilists have turned partners: they sting like a butterfly and float like a bee.

This chance shot was more appropriate than Cauchetier can have envisaged. Jules et Jim was an adaptation of the autobiographical novel of the same name by the French writer and translator Henri-Pierre Roché (1879 – 1959). The novel recreates the relationship between Roché (Jim) and Franz Hessel (Jules) the German writer, who boxed regularly together during the pre-1914 craze for the sport in Paris. Truffaut chose Henri Serre to play Jim, because he bore a resemblance to the tall, thin and gentle Roché.

Roché had an unusual non-jealous, non-competitive nature and he explored love beyond a single partner throughout his life. He was the first lover of the painter Marie Laurencin, who lived in the Bateau-Lavoir. She was also loved by the cubist painter Georges Braque and in 1905 and 1906 she was in a relationship with both men, openly understood. This unconventional arrangement deepened the bond between the men through a shared lover. Roché and Braque would box together; he described in his diary Braque having “an impenetrable English defence. His gloves fluttered around his face like large butterflies, his elbows slid from his stomach to his sides. I quickly threw my best punches at him – all blocked. In the end I was at his mercy.” The relationship between these two men was mediated by both the woman they loved and the formal and controlled conflict of the boxing ring. In the novel Jim says of another man that he “would have liked to box with him to get to know him better”.

The craze for boxing in Paris coincided with the move of artists and writers from Montmartre to Montparnasse. Here there were boxing schools and professionals would spar and train in front of large audiences. According to his diary on 15th April 1909 Roché sparred with Braque and Derain, “afterwards billiards and dinner”. The heavyweight Langford boxed in front of a large crowd on 7th April 1911; Picasso was present and made three drawings of the bout. He wrote afterwards to Roché “I didn’t see you at our friend Sam Langford’s.” The poet and boxer Arthur Cravan was a ubiquitous figure in Paris during these years: he was the nephew of Oscar Wilde and a former amateur middleweight boxing champion of France. He gave lectures on boxing, dancing and poetry and edited the proto-Dada magazine Maintenant.

It was about the year 1907: Roché met Hessel in Paris. They translated each other’s poems into each other’s language, and they boxed together. They sat up late in cafés talking, they smoked expensive cigars; each had never found such an attentive listener. In the film Jules et Jim the two box together in a scene set in the gymnasium, Jim seems the stronger and more agile of the two. They finally stop to draw breath and retire to the side of the gym, taking off their gloves and discuss Jim’s novel entitled Jacques et Julien: Jules asks if he could translate it into German, then the two men go for a shower. In the novel Jim says “the frontiers between language ought to be abolished”. Hessel became involved with Roché’s lover Marie Laurencin and in return Hessel facilitated, on a trip to Germany, relationships between Roché and two of his German lovers, Luise Bucking and Franziska Graffin von Reventlow. As with Braque before him, Roché developed his relationship with Hessel in the boxing ring and through shared lovers.

Helen Grund, a German journalist, came to Paris in 1912 to study art under Fernand Leger, she met Hessel at the Café de Dome, a haunt of Germans in those pre-war days, and they began a love affair. She was dynamic and vital whereas he was phlegmatic and dreamy. Helen became the model for Kathe in Jules et Jim (Catherine in the Truffaut film). Hessel, of course, introduced her to Roché but only after keeping them apart for a month. In the novel Jules arranges the meeting with these words: “Not this one, Jim, eh?” an injunction Roché obeyed, at first.

Helen married Hessel in 1913 and the two returned to Germany. In Jules et Jim, a novel about love not war, the interregnum of the war years is covered in a laconic sequence. “The war broke out; it separated them for five years. All either could do was to let the other know, by communicating through neutral countries, that he was still alive. Jules was on the Russian front. There was little likelihood of them encountering one another.1919, Peace.” After the war between their respective countries the relationship between this German and Frenchman was to be rebuilt. Roché visited the Hessel’s in Germany (now with two daughters) and they embarked on a three-pronged quest for selfless, passionate love. Roché and Helen began an intense love affair at the Hessel’s house. They sought love that was free of jealousy and selfishness: a continuous experiment in possibilities. The world and human relationships were being made afresh after a war that none of them had wanted. Roché and Franz and Helen Hessel were pioneers fearlessly searching for a new moral ethic, without conforming to the existing rules. They wanted to construct something better, refusing hypocrisy; they wanted to invent love from the beginning. In the novel Jules says he gave Kathe and his daughters to Jim “because they were the best he had to give.”

In Hessel’s novel about the ménage-at-trois, Alter Mann, published in German in the1930s, he described the relationship as having “expanded the habitual scope of friendship and love”. After she saw the film of Jules et Jim, Helen Hessel, now in her 80s and living in Germany, sent Truffaut a letter congratulating him on making a film that “recreated experiences which were lived in blindness”.

In a striking parallel, in early 1916 at a cottage in Zennor, Cornwall, D.H. Lawrence was living with his German wife, Frieda, and writing Women in Love. It is a First World War novel that challenges the assumptions behind conventional relationships. The chauvinism and xenophobia and violence unleashed by the war appalled Lawrence and the novel examines how humanity could be remade with a new kind of relationship between men and women, and men and men. In April Lawrence was anonymously denounced for spying when German family letters sent through neutral countries to Frieda were discovered and they were ordered to leave Cornwall.

Roché, two years earlier, had also been anonymously denounced when letters sent from Germany by Hessel to him were regarded suspiciously. Roché was imprisoned for two weeks as a suspected German spy. After he was discharged from the French army he left for America and joined his great friend from Paris days the painter Marcel Duchamp. In New York by 1917 he and Duchamp were both in a relationship with the American artist Beatrice Wood.

In April 1917, at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition, Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal (bought at a New York hardware store), called it ‘Fountain’ and signed it ‘R. Mutt’. This caused consternation for the committee as the rules of the exhibition required that all pieces submitted with the correct fee had to be accepted. They rejected it. Roché included the following editorial in a magazine The Blind Man he published in New York days later, now regarded as a seminal Dada text (the anti-art movement opposed to the cultural values that had brought about the war).

“They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.
Mr Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion this article disappeared and was never exhibited.
What were the grounds for refusing Mr Mutt’s fountain: –
1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.
2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing
Now Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”

A photograph of the urinal by Alfred Steiglitz was published in the magazine. The well-known New York art collector Walter Arensberg (and as it happened Duchamp’s landlord) stated he had bought the urinal. Then the poet-pugilist Arthur Cravan, now also in New York, was invited by Duchamp, Roché and Wood to explain the furore with a lecture on the state of modern art. He attended drunk, got undressed on the podium, was arrested and spent the night in Sing Sing.

Roché published another key Dada magazine in New York, Rongwrong (which included early photographs by Man Ray), but forfeited the chance to continue, after losing a game of chess to the artist Francis Picabia. Picabia’s Dada magazine, 391, was published instead. These cheaply produced Dada magazines enabled communication during the war between the centres of the movement (such as Cologne, Zurich, Berlin and Barcelona).

Roché did not fight for his country during the war. Instead he fought against the conventions in art and in love; and for tolerance and humanity beyond national boundaries. He published Jules et Jim in 1954 to no acclaim and died in 1959 before Truffaut’s film made it famous. The many articles and books written about Duchamp’s Fountain (voted by five hundred art experts in 2004 to be the most influential work of art of the twentieth century) rarely mention Roché. When he died in 1959 his novel, Victor, about his great friend Duchamp, was unfinished. He had written a diary for many years about his love life, but it was rejected for publication on the ground that it would not be commercially viable. On his death there were no obituaries and few of the French newspapers even noted that he had died.

Franz Hessel, a German Jew, died in 1941 of a stroke after being interred by the Vichy authorities in a French detention camp. “In the fight between you and the world, back the world” Kafka said. But, for me, Cauchetier’s photograph shows a German and a Frenchman on the eve of the First World War, rejecting combat, and choosing instead to dance.


One thought on “La vie obscure de Henri-Pierre Roché

  1. Pingback: We played with life and lost | Edward Bindloss

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