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The Village Idiot


Steve Stern

Art by Florian Heinke



There are many tales, mostly untrue, about the friendship between the artists Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani. My favorite involves a boat race. This was in 1917, when you could stand in the streets of Paris and feel the muffled percussion from the guns on the Western Front. German Zeppelins were often seen overhead. The black market price of a pack of Caporals or a couple of kilos of coal was extortionate; a pot-au-feu cost fifteen sous. At night the streetlamps were dimmed, the avenues empty, the shop windows X’d over with bomb tape. The cafes were closed before curfew and the galleries shuttered. What remittances the impoverished artists may have received from abroad were no longer crossing the border. They ate, when they ate, thin gruel at fly-by-night canteens. In the face of such general dreariness, the irrepressible Tuscan Modigliani, convinced that he knew just the thing to lift the spirits of the bohemian quarter, proposed a regatta.

The artists would construct their own vessels from scrounged materials, then race them in the Seine between the Pont Louis-Philippe and the Viaduc d’Austerlitz. The winner would receive the prize—a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild filched from the cellar of the Café La Dôme—from the hands of the notorious Kiki, Queen of Montparnasse.

I can imagine the scene: painters and sculptors waiting to compete in their jerry-built boats on an afternoon the poet Max Jacob has declared to be the most glorious in the history of the world. The sunlight is unfiltered nectar; the soft-blowing April winds wear velvet gloves. The Fauves Vlaminck and Derain, however, are observing with disapproval the reflections of the Beaux Arts facades on the surface of the river: their prismatic shimmering is too much like an Impressionist palette. Moïse Kisling and Ossip Zadkine, both in uniform, are there on leave from the Front. Apollinaire is present as well, invalided with the head injury that, along with the Spanish flu, will soon take his life. Cyclists have abandoned their velós and booksellers closed their stalls along the Quai des Celestins to watch the proceedings. Lovers on the banks disentwine and onlookers crowd the parapets of the Pont Marie. The wishful art dealer Zborowski is on the promenade collecting wagers and distributing receipts: the smart money is on Brancusi’s hand-carved scull The Flying Romanian.

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“with grave misgivings, he went along with Modi to meet his acquaintance—Modi had many acquaintances—in his rescue cabin near the Pont Mirabeau. This was Gaston Babineaux, salvage diver and unlikely art lover, who brought up suicides and murder victims from the river for the Prefecture of Police. The old water-dog agreed to the loan of his scaphandre de plongeur, the ponderous suit with its copper helmet and weighted boots, in exchange for an original Modigliani. He even volunteered to keep abreast of the diver’s progress, following him along the embankment with the portable respirator.”


Picasso’s contribution is The Neversink, a gaily painted Cubist contraption rocking dangerously in its berth, already on the verge of disproving its name. By contrast, the bark of Fernand Leger, on whose person you can still catch a whiff of the gas from Verdun, appears to be relatively seaworthy. So does Diego Rivera’s rubber dinghy (dubbed La Cacafuego) despite the heavy freight of its passenger. Tsuguharu Foujita’s Vixen, a flat-bottomed outrigger powered by a Singer sewing machine, rides the current with a tactical finesse. Maurice Utrillo has borrowed a porous coracle from a child. It founders directly upon launching so that the melancholy painter has to be fished out of the river with a grappling hook. Raoul Dufy has entered a scow with a crenellated tower that will be truncated by the first bridge it passes under; Max Jacob has tarted up his punt to look like an argosy. There’s the wallowing Raft of the Medusa haphazardly piloted by the potted Russians Kikoïne and Krémègne. Modigliani himself is seated imperially in an enamel bathtub, his red cravat floating behind him in the breeze, the tub harnessed to a troika of canvasback ducks.

Utrillo’s mama, Suzanne Valadon, wearing a hat like a hanging garden, puts her pinkies to the corners of her lips: the shrill whistle that emerges is the signal for the race to begin. Predictably, Brancusi’s scull shoots out ahead of the others, though for a time Foujita’s Vixen keeps pace with it. The Russians and Rivera ply their oars for all they’re worth, but it’s clear from the outset they’re no match for the front-runners. The sculptor Lipschitz relaxes in the stern of a barnacled fishing dory, while his wife shows herself remarkably adept at trimming the sail. Unfortunately, the wind offers little in the way of propulsion. The pug-faced Blaise Cendrars makes some headway in the driver’s seat of a Fiat runabout mounted on twin pontoons, but his single arm—the other was blown off during the attack at Champagne—restricts him to rowing in circles. Meanwhile, having been thus far neck-and-neck with The Flying Romanian, Foujita begins to fall behind, and so decides to ram Brancusi amidships with the bow of his boat. It’s at that point that Modigliani, making wonderfully steady progress in his duck-drawn tub, takes the lead. Cheers go up from the embankment as the handsome Italian, arms folded and smiling serenely, cruises upriver past the tip of the Isle Saint-Louis.

But Modi, as his friends call him, has a secret advantage. He’s had a vision, as when has he not? Between his consumption of absinthe, opium, and hashish, his days are a series of hallucinations only occasionally tainted by reality. This particular pipedream involved a Viking longboat pulled by swans, outdistancing in competition the inferior vessels of all the other artists-turned-mariners-for-a-day. In the end it had been easier to corral ducks than swans, and a smut-blighted bathtub was more readily available than the longboat. Then he confided in his young friend, the Litvak painter Soutine, his plan for ensuring his victory: To assist the ducks in propelling his vessel, a length of rope attached to the tub would be fastened at the other end to a deep-sea diver, who would haul it faithfully forward from the bottom of the Seine.


The always anxious Soutine was not unaccustomed to the Italyaner’s wild fancies, but this one took the knish. He’d yet to finish shaking his head over the absurdity of the scheme, when Modi informed him that he would have the honor of being that diver harnessed to the tub.

“I can’t swim!” was his despairing response.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been inveigled by his friend into playing the part of his accomplice in some compromising circumstance. There was the night he’d accompanied Amedeo to a building site to steal blocks of limestone for his massive sculptures, the morning Modi had conscripted him into acting as his second in a farcical duel. And so on. Why, when Chaim wanted only to be left alone to paint his bruised fruit and dead animals, did he continue to allow the crazy Tuscan to entice him away from his easel? The answer was one he couldn’t even admit to himself, that he adored his only friend this side of idolatry, and outside of art, adoration was a thing that didn’t come naturally to Chaim Soutine.

So, with grave misgivings, he went along with Modi to meet his acquaintance—Modi had many acquaintances—in his rescue cabin near the Pont Mirabeau. This was Gaston Babineaux, salvage diver and unlikely art lover, who brought up suicides and murder victims from the river for the Prefecture of Police. The old water-dog agreed to the loan of his scaphandre de plongeur, the ponderous suit with its copper helmet and weighted boots, in exchange for an original Modigliani. He even volunteered to keep abreast of the diver’s progress, following him along the embankment with the portable respirator. Then seeing how Modi’s companion had begun to tremble, he assured him there was nothing to worry about, except maybe a phenomenon known as “the squeeze.” That’s when, say, the air hose is punctured and the negative pressure sucks your flesh and soft tissues up into the helmet.

“There was the case of a diver who had so much of himself sucked into his helmet that they simply buried the helmet instead of a coffin.”

Seeing how Chaim had turned the green of moldy cheese, old Babineaux let loose a guffaw that infected Modi as well.

Thus did Chaim Soutine, late of the shtetl of Smilovitchi in the Russian Pale of Settlement, find himself toiling along the murky bed of the River Seine. Many obstacles litter his path: wine bottles, suitcases, skeletal umbrellas, sculpted faces fallen from a bridge pier, artillery shells from previous centuries, a wheelchair—they come only briefly into focus in the turbid water. The breathing gas pumped into his helmet from the surface supply tastes of disinfectant and smells like burnt hair. It’s delivered through a valve operated by gnashing his teeth, which releases the flow of the oxygen-helium mixture until his aching jaw has to let go. Then he panics a breathless few moments until he’s able to bite down again.

The diving costume in which he’s confined weighs eighty-six kilos; the heavy boots kick up clouds of silt as he forges doggedly forward. The rope round his waist, looped at its other end through a hole in Modi’s tub, further impedes his advance. The lead counterweight at his chest is shaped like a heart. How, wonders Chaim in his discomfiture, did I let the meshugah Italian talk me into this? Still, when not oppressed to near delirium by his immersion in this alien element, he experiences an occasional buoyancy that contradicts the fear. After all, Chaim is no stranger to claustrophobic confinement. Hasn’t he spent days locked in a chicken coop or coal cellar back in Smilovitchi? His punishment for having broken the second commandment by making pictures.


The old leather-faced plongeur had called the air hose “your umbilical,” and I like to think that, under water, the painter might have entertained some unplumbed memory of being an infant again, suspended in amniotic impregnability. He might feel this despite the fierce dissent of his better instincts. Maybe he even remembers a tale he’s heard from his superstitious mother about the Angel of Forgetfulness. He hates these bubbeh maysehs, these grandmother’s tales, by which the shtetl folk have increased the already overcrowded population of their rural ghetto with meddling demons and angels. In this fable the angel that watches over the child in the womb provides a light by which it can see from one end of the world to the other. This includes the entirety of its life to come. But as soon as it’s born the apprehensive angel tweaks the child under the nose so that it forgets everything.

What’s the point? wonders Chaim.

But suppose that in the scaphandre the artist, like the child in the womb, has available to him the whole of his past and future. His life unfolds before the glass of his viewport, flickering amid a school of minnows that are swallowed up in turn by a big fish with a mouth like a bullhorn. Perhaps it’s a function of the pressure on his brain of the tons of water above him and the artificial air in his helmet. Call it a species of rapture of the deep. But there it is now, the past—thinks Chaim, it should laugh with the lizards! What is there in the years trailing behind him but hunger and ill-use? And as for the future, he’s had dire enough intimations of it while studying the subjects of his still-lifes.

“Chaim,” Amedeo once asked him, indicating the gutted hare hanging from a hook in his studio, “what do you see in its entrails?”

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“Can you read them like an oracle?”

Chaim harrumphed. “I see in them nothing but blood and kishkes,” he lied, because he’d perceived in them much more than he wished.

On the evening he made the acquaintance of Modigliani, he was painting a brace of herrings dangling from a chianti bottle. He was involved in daubing a dollop of red to the neck of the sap-green bottle, a pale red the color of a robin’s breast with which he was dissatisfied. That’s when the curtain was yanked aside by Jacques Lipschitz, who whispered to Amedeo Modigliani, “The Litvak Soutine.”

They hadn’t known he was there. The two artists had come to visit Oscar Miestchaninoff, who was absent from his studio. They had poked about in the meantime, inspecting the sculptor’s sleek marble heads. Curious to see more, Lipschitz drew aside the hanging burlap to reveal the immigrant in his paint-dappled gatkes.

As Chaim, in his absorption, was oblivious to their presence, they stood there watching his rapt activity. “The shtot meshugenah, `the village idiot,’ they called him back in Hotzeplotz or wherever he comes from,” Lipschitz confided to the Italian. But when he started to drop the curtain, Modi grabbed it, still interested in observing the painter at work. Lipschitz looked from Modigliani to the grubby shtetl refugee, wondering what he was so fascinated by.

They might have turned and departed unnoticed had not the bluff Miestchaninoff hailed them upon entering his studio: “Landsmen!” At that Chaim turned from his easel, and was outraged. He spat three times in anger at their trespass, and remembering his naked canvas, spun around to cover it with a sheet.

“We were just admiring your . . . offering?” said Modigliani, aiming a finger at the herrings, as if the fish rather than their rendering were the object of their espionage.

Chaim fumed. “You had no right!”


Modi stepped forward to introduce himself, calm in the face of the painter’s vexation, but not yet ready to be pacified, Chaim was slow to take his hand. Though he nevertheless accepted the offer of a cigarette; it was his policy never to refuse a handout. Then even as he bent to let the Italyaner light his Gitanes, he was struck by the man’s Sephardic beauty, which he seemed to recognize despite their never having met. Who hadn’t heard tales of the penniless prince of the Carrefour Vavin?

He was everything that Chaim wasn’t. There was a thoroughbred elegance about him that the nap of his velvet jacket and the frayed edge of his cardinal-red scarf could not impugn. His dense shock of curling midnight hair was disheveled from having been tousled (one supposed) by his models and mistresses. His faun’s eyes were at once teasing and tender. In his presence Chaim was keenly aware of the heavy lids of his own sloe-black eyes, the left one given to a nervous tic, the right half-hidden by a fringe of oily hair. His nose was bulbous as a beetroot, his lips what the goyim called “nigger.” Hadn’t he titled the single self-portrait he’d bothered to execute “The Grotesque”?

Modigliani graciously invited Soutine to join them for apéritifs. “I’ve had a loan from my rainy-day patron Guillaume. The drinks are on me.”

Still reluctant to let go of his umbrage, Chaim couldn’t help but feel flattered at being included. No one in recent memory had requested his company. Grudgingly he conceded that his work was in any case kaput for the night.

“I was going out anyway,” he lied, and began to pull on his filthy pants over his filthy longjohns. He snuffed out the spirit lamp and followed the rakish Italian through the little regiment of busts and torsos.

Lipschitz and Miestchaninoff, however, begged off. Jacques remembered that he had a wife and Oscar a rare commission to complete. So it was left to Modi to introduce the unfledged immigrant to the city after dark.

“Come, Soutine,” he said, “without hope, we live in desire.”

It was an enticement Chaim would hear various versions of in the coming months and years. But while he resolved each time to resist the Italian’s calls to waywardness, he nearly always responded like one in thrall to some hypnotic suggestion.


Whereas Chaim was inclined to keep to the shadows, Modi strolled the evening streets as if, despite his insolvency, they belonged to him. Nothing belonged to Chaim and he disliked drawing attention to that fact. Modigliani on the other hand nodded to every shopkeeper sweeping a doorstep or sommelier raising a café awning. He blew a kiss to an aging streetwalker and merrily kicked a stray dog. He sniffed the air, discerned “an ill wind abroad in the soft night air, or is that your bouquet, Soutine?” Because Chaim had an aversion to bathing, fearing the science of municipal plumbing, primitive though it was at La Ruche. But before he could respond to the perceived insult, his companion had begun to recite a poem.

‘Á l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendide villes!’ Do you know Rimbaud, Soutine? I’ll loan you a volume.”

Nostalgic tonight, Modi had it in mind to revisit his former haunt of the Butte Montmartre. It was a long walk, since the hackney fare was out of the question, across the river and up the Boulevard de Clichy past the shrine of the Moulin Rouge. Above Pigalle the steep streets narrowed and the quarter still retained pockets of rusticity: here a grape arbor, there a windmill, a lurid apache bar, an open-air guingette. Along the way Modi invoked the names of certain luminaries—Lautrec, Bruant, Jane Avril—who had consecrated the music halls and ateliers of the Belle Époque. He pointed out the caged window from which Gérard de Nerval had hanged himself and a condemned house Modi had once squatted in. He recalled the banquet for Henri Rousseau hosted by Picasso at the folly of his Bateau Lavoir. There the Douanier, enthroned and holding the scepter of his violin, presided over a bacchanal that included the entire roster of Bohemia. And Modigliani, late and uninvited, claimed to have crashed the affair just after his arrival in Paris.

“I personally intercepted the drops of wax dripping from a Japanese lantern onto Rousseau’s floppy cap.”

The artists fetched up in a seamy tavern called Le Lapin Blessé, a humbler cousin of the celebrated Lapin Agile further up the hill. They took a table at the rear of the premises, its surface imprinted with circles from generations of overflowed cups. Above them hung a red-shaded lamp, behind them a wall plastered with sensational newspaper clippings from the previous century. Modi ordered a bottle of wine and, after swilling the lion’s share, another. He continued regaling his companion with gleanings from his literary heroes, declaiming lines from Dante and D’Annunzio; he repeated Rimbaud’s shibboleth, which he’d adopted as his own: “Le dereglement des tous les sens!” and listed the ways he’d found to put that concept into practice.

“My senses are deregled already enough,” Chaim had muttered. He hadn’t meant to interrupt, but Modi paused long enough in his running monologue to chuckle, light a cigarette, and call attention to Chaim’s runny nose.

Chaim duteously wiped the snot on the back of his hand. While gratified to have been taken up by the loquacious Italian, he was becoming eager to get back to his precious solitude. It was clear to him, despite the brief span of their acquaintance, that Modigliani had constant need of a gallery to play to; he must be always in the act of cultivating his legend: le peintre maudit, a homonym he set much store by. Even now, in the company of a soap-dodging greenhorn whom he had no call to impress, he was performing.

“I’m Apollo when I work,” he declared, uncorking a small vial of ether which he poured into his wine, “Dionysus when I’m away from my chisels and paints,” quaffing the glass and offering the dregs to his companion, who declined.

“Begging your pardon,” submitted Chaim, amazed at his own presumption, “but it’s a difference between to live and to work?”

Modi ignored him, rattling on about the sanctified enterprise of his art: that it was closer to le vrai, the real, than the world itself as it appeared to the unawakened soul. “When I make a portrait, it’s more like the model than the model is like herself. Do you paint nudes, Soutine? Oh, the ladies, what a nuisance they can be with their false modesty! I have to throw a sheet over their castoff underclothes so that my studio won’t look like a boudoir. You know, Courbet claimed that he could give in his nudes all the character of Paris . . .” Coughing fruitily, he turned to gaze toward a window that overlooked the Hill of Martyrs, from whose foot the lamp-lit city was spread out like a drunken spider’s web.


Not wishing to disturb Amedeo’s meditation, Chaim nevertheless made so bold as to murmur an ambition of his own. “I want to show all that is Paris in the carcass of an ox.” But it wasn’t true; he cared nothing for the essence of Paris. And when the day came that he could afford to bring a whole carcass back to his studio, it wouldn’t be Paris he painted but the ox: the ox c’est lui.

Having apparently heard him, Modi turned back toward Chaim and seemed to wait for him to continue. The immigrant squirmed in his seat, uncomfortable under anyone’s stare; his flat features didn’t bear close scrutiny. But Modigliani had fixed him with his vitreous, dun-brown eyes, and Chaim, who never gave freely of himself, felt called upon to contribute another two centimes.

“There was in Smilovitchi eleven of us children,” he offered, “twelve if you counted my papa who was himself a child. Like the rest of us he was always hungry, and he would pick from our kasha the gribenes. My mama would see this and pass her plate to him, so she often went without. But,” he was thoughtful, “I don’t remember I ever expressed to her gratitude.”

Leaning forward, Modi placed his elbows on the table and propped his dimpled chin in his fists. “Where does it come from, Soutine?”

“Where comes from what?”

“The itch to paint. When did it infect you?” For Modi himself, born under the Tuscan sun, was an heir to cultural aristocracy, Spinoza an ancestor on his mother’s side. The family had encouraged his artistic pursuit. But this lumpish Litvak had stumbled out of a howling wilderness that never heard of sfumato or Claude Monet.

“From bedbugs I get the itch,” grumbled Chaim, actually reaching into his shirt to scratch his chest. He was becoming increasingly uncomfortable under the Italian’s regard. It was as if Amedeo perceived something in him that Chaim preferred not to see in himself. Resenting this excess of consideration, he came to a conclusion of his own, and suddenly blurted, “I don’t need your kind of making from murdering yourself a romance! My own art will murder me soon enough.” Then he waited for Modigliani to get up and storm out of that flyblown joint, after which they would become estranged as he’d estranged so many others.

But Modi, short-tempered as he so often was and likely to take offense at much less, only offered reflectively, “That’s the difference between me and you, Chaim. May I call you Chaim?” Chaim marveled that he hadn’t already. “I keep my torments out of my art. I save them for when I’m drunk or in love. Whereas you—I saw it at a glance—you smear them into your paintings like hot grease on an open sore.”

The artist’s earnestness was finally more than Chaim could endure. “What torments?” he exclaimed. “I am all the time a happy man!”

At that, though he tried to stifle it, Modi gave himself up to uproarious laughter. He took hold of one of Soutine’s hands (as tapered and delicate as his face was coarse) as if grasping a lifeline. “Myself,” he said when he’d caught his breath, “I’d rather be secure in my misery than risk being happy. Sans blague,” he proclaimed, “happiness is an angel with a serious face.” Then always prepared to raise another glass at the slightest excuse, he added, “Let’s drink to happiness!” and shouted for the barman to bring them absinthe ordinaire.

The burly taverner shambled forward from behind the bar carrying a tray containing a slender azure bottle of the clear elixir. The tray also held a pitcher of water along with two reservoir glasses, a bowl of sugar cubes, and a small slotted spoon.

Modi rubbed his hands in anticipation. “Have you had the grand wormwood, Chaim?”

Chaim’s familiarity with spirits had been limited to the cheap bar mitzvah schnapps and vinegary wines of the Russian Pale; later on he’d learned to scarf a leftover eau de vie from the tables along the Boulevard Raspail. But absinthe had so far remained a myth. Modi explained that it had been outlawed in the more respectable establishments, which, judging from the number of sideways caps and wrist tattoos among its clientele, the Lapin Blessé was not. Then he began, with a precision that belied his advanced state of intoxication, to enact the ceremony of preparing “the green fairy.”

“After the first glass you see things as you wish they were,” he intoned, “after the second things as they are not; then finally you see things as they are—a celestial nightmare!”

Modi uncapped the bottle and filled the two glasses, sliding one toward Chaim. He poured water from the porcelain pitcher into them both, turning the clear liquid to a misty jade. He placed a cube of sugar on the spatulate spoon, dipped the spoon into the drink, and lifted it out again. Then he took a match from his pocket, struck it on the table, and lit the sugar, which burned with a lambent blue-green flame. Once the sugar was caramelized, he again dipped the spoon into the absinthe, where the flame spread to engulf the surface of the drink. He poured more water into his glass, dousing the flames, and took a sip. He closed his eyes, opened them, startling Chaim with their incandescence, then passed him the spoon and said, “Now you.”


His left eyelid in full flutter, Chaim attempted to follow suit. He managed despite shaky hands to ignite the sugar and dip it in his drink, which flared like a torch. Gasping, he reached for the pitcher to drown the blaze, knocking over the glass in the process. The flames traveled along with the spilled liquid across the width of the wooden tabletop, leaping from the table to touch off the old newspapers that covered the wall. The artists watched spellbound as a paper boasting the headline J’ACCUSE! shaded from coffee brown to chrome orange before curling into a gobbet of red combustion. In a matter of seconds, the entire wall of that spit-and-sawdust saloon was a billowing trellis of flame. The handful of rough customers were on their feet and making in a body for the door. Chaim and Modi were among them, though not before they’d witnessed the barman snap out of his paralysis and charge the conflagration. Furiously he attempted to smother the flames with his apron, but the apron itself caught fire. This sent the man into a St. Vitus dance whose frantic flapping only succeeded in fanning the blaze. So swiftly did the flames spread about the walls, dropping incendiary blossoms from the ceiling onto the tables below, that it seemed the boite had been all along a tinderbox waiting to be ignited. Windows shattered, labels on bottles blistered and peeled before the bottles themselves burst like shrapnel. The whole place had become an inferno and the barkeep, having done what he could, fled into the street outside with the rest of his patrons.

The fire brigade eventually managed to negotiate the switchback lanes of the quarter, steam issuing from the brass pumper and the nostrils of the heavy horses that pulled it. By the time they arrived, however, Le Lapin Blessé was a smoldering mound of cinders and ash. That the ruin was situated on its own barren parcel of ground, bounded by a now carbonized hedge, was all that had kept it from having incinerated the surrounding houses. Rubberneckers and tongue-lolling dogs swelled the ranks of those already gathered to watch the spectacle. Children jeered the tardy pompiers lurching among the embers, laughed at how their dribbling hoses caused the collapsed tin roof to sizzle.

Soutine and Modigliani had remained among the onlookers, standing under an arc lamp wreathed in smoke. They were joined there by the barkeep whose disconsolate humor suggested that he might also be the proprietor. Having ceased his quiet sobbing, he turned toward them, his fat face terrible with its singed eyebrows and beard.

“Ja sooey dezolay,” said Chaim in his embryonic French. “I’m sorry.”

The broken-hearted man sniffled then brought down a hammy fist upon the crown of the Litvak’s bare head. Chaim crumpled onto the cobbles from which Modi, himself unsteady on his pins, gently scooped him up. “Come, mon vieux,” he said, “it’s time we got back to work.” Upheld by his friend’s giddy grip on the back of his collar, Chaim needed no further persuasion.