France Honors Meredith Monk and Aimée Brown Price

May 12, 2015 | By French Culture

On Monday, May 11, 2015, Meredith Monk, composer, choreographer, singer and performer, and Aimée Brown Price, art historian and specialist on the French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, were awarded the Order of Arts and Letters by the Deputy Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, Thomas Michelon, in a double decoration ceremony which took place at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. 


Dear friends, chers amis,

I am delighted to welcome you to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy tonight, where it will soon be my honor to present Meredith Monk and Aimée Brown Price with the Ordre des Arts et Lettres. As many of you know we had planned to honor Aimée and Meredith in January, but a snowstorm got in our way. 

I extend a special welcome to all of Meredith’s and Aimée’s friends and family, especially to Meredith’s niece, Corinna, and her nephew-in-law, Rory, and Aimée’s family—her husband, Professor Monroe E. Price; her sons and their spouses, Professors Joshua M. Price and Maria Constanza Guzman, and Mr. Gabriel Price and Mrs. Leah Price; her grandsons, Dovid and Avrumi Price; and her sister, Carol Brown Rusoff.

Her son Asher Price and daughter-in-law Rebecca Markovits could not come tonight but will undoubtedly be toasting her in Austin, Texas.

When we reflect on these extraordinary individuals  – Aimée and Meredith  –  our mind always returns to the idea of discovery and exploration. Both of you, as archaeologists, delve deeply into uncharted territory.  In carving your own courses, Meredith and Aimée, you have uncovered ideas of great value.

*

Aimée, tonight we consecrate your relationship with France, which truly began in 1964 when you came to our country on a Fulbright Fellowship. Freshly out of Yale, you followed your dream of studying Puvis de Chavannes, perhaps not knowing exactly where it would take you. Your exploration had begun with a sepia-tinted postcard of Le Pauvre Pecheur, one of the artist’s more famous canvases. The more you examined it, the more you wanted to know about its painter. Who was behind the unique little figure of the fisherman, so enigmatic and yet so unassuming? To think that it was painted in 1881, the year Picasso was born, when French art was supposedly polarized between academism and the avant-garde.

You would soon learn, though, that such firm distinctions did not allow for exceptions, as was the case for Puvis de Chavannes. If not completely neglected, this artist’s work was not easily explained and thus misunderstood throughout much of the 20th century. Puvis de Chavannes is an artist we discover indirectly – by chance at a museum, on a postcard, or for me, through a Huysmans text. This is not to say that he didn’t gain a certain degree of notoriety amongst his contemporaries, and not only for his official murals. Of all the reactions to his paintings you include in your book, my favorite is Huysmans, whose words are startlingly accurate. To quote him, because, even in translation, his prose is excellent: “It is always the same pale color, the same appearance of fresco, always angular and hard, that irritates, as usual, with his pretensions of naiveté and affectation of the simple; and nonetheless, he flounders about courageously, and even achieves…a certain grandeur.” 

You echo Huysmans in your essay “The Poor Fisherman: A Painting in Context” when you identify this work as a herald of modernism. By flattening the aesthetic and representing the figures in fixed poses, Puvis de Chavannes effectively transposed the mural aesthetic onto the canvas. Maurice Denis perfectly sums up Puvis de Chavannes’ great influence on modernism when he says, “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Thus, Aimée, you traced a root of modern art back to Puvis’ painting and, in doing so, gave the artist his due.

I think that your approach to explaining the work of Puvis de Chavannes represents an extraordinarily even-handed treatment of theory and fact.  At the Van Gogh Museum exhibition on Puvis de Chavannes in 1994, you led curious art lovers to rediscover him thanks to your refined insight and astute eye.   

And by publishing an exhaustive catalogue raisonné alongside an exhibition on the artist’s life and work, you act in service of justice by making his oeuvre accessible to both art lovers and academics.

I find that the most obvious quality of your work is the sheer volume of material it contains. The catalogue raisonné presents a truly staggering amount of data, including an impressive selection of collateral material, such as caricatures from the popular press, copies of Puvis' work by other artists, and historical comparative materials.

And your book on Puvis de Chavannes is classic, in the best sense of the word.

Among the Puvis texts I’ve read, the one that particularly captured my attention was on caricatures.  Satire was everywhere in Puvis’ time. Newspapers and artists subverted hierarchies, power structures, and dogma through this art.

But Puvis’ deep interest in caricature was completely separate from his passion for Hellenism and classicism – or more traditional styles – which he saw as absolute aesthetic standards.

When contemplating this great disconnect, I admit that I was troubled by the link with the events of our contemporary society.  Caricature and Hellenism, social critique and 19th century democratic ideals, law and religion– these are worlds apart in Puvis’ mind, and today they still struggle to find channels of communication.  I thank you, Aimée, for bringing such a relevant and thought-provoking character as Puvis to the table.

You began your grand investigation of Puvis de Chavannes while a Fulbright Fellow in Paris studying under Marcel Brion of the Académie Française. He was apparently flabbergasted that you had managed to insinuate yourself into the circle of the descendants of Puvis de Chavannes. What was your secret, one may ask? A certain line you used in your letters: “On m'a dit que vous pouviez m'aider…” Of course, they followed up; they wanted to know who the “on” was. It was thus how you gained access to Le Brouchy, the ancestral home of the Puvis de Chavannes family, where the great artist had executed his first mural cycle.

Fortunately for you, Aimee, some of your contacts within the family became as interested as you were in tracking down different works and doing some genealogical sleuthing. And what rich results such efforts yielded – sometimes, in closets of far rooms of chateaux, you would come across whole troves of drawings, sketches, even a watercolor or two. Now, everyone is reaping the fruits of your research.

Dear Aimée, your commitment to plunging deep into the subjects of these scholarly studies has propelled you to the forefront of your field.  From crafting a revolutionary new analysis of Puvis de Chavannes to enriching the knowledge offered by the most important museums of our time, you catapult us into another era of artistic insight.  Your singular eye makes you a living channel of wisdom and scholarship that flows between our countries.

For your enormous contributions to French culture, and unsurpassed creative vision, it is my honor to recognize you, Aimée Brown Price, with the Order of Arts and Letters.

Aimée Brown Price, au nom du gouvernment français, je vous fais chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.

*   *   *

Meredith Monk, it is an incredible privilege to be decorating you tonight.  What does it mean to be decorating Meredith Monk – where does one start with Meredith’s work? There are so many layers, nuances, and mediums that diving into her oeuvre feels like stepping through the door of another dimension.  

So let’s start at a particular place – with a Viennese author. 

In one of the most profound and articulate plays of Arthur Schnitzler – “The Lonely Way” – the character Sala joins an archeological journey. He is prepared to leave our world, turn his back to civilization, and plunge into both ancient times and, even more, the depths of himself.  I quote: “Imagine, they now think that underneath the rubble and the ruins there is a city the size of London… They dug out some stairs… Three hundred and twelve steps, gleaming like opals, leading down into an unknown depth… I can’t tell you how much these stairs intrigue me.”

Meredith, like Sala, you dig deeply down into the essential material that makes us living, feeling beings.  You examine the sea floor in the ocean of human consciousness.  As it has been so well written, you “make us aware of the submerged connections between islands of difference” through building layers of imagery and sounds.  You plumb the inner recesses of the soul to produce astounding beauty. Like the ebb and flow of a winding river, your music features exciting accelerations and surprising metamorphoses.  It carries heavy loads and lightness and its tides fluctuate in a smooth and mesmerizing cycle.  As you say, “my work is like a colored liquid; it keeps changing.”

You plunge into the sub-levels of our minds, our past, our memory and emotion.  You make us experience facets of human condition for which there are no words. Anyone watching one of your pieces would be able, I think, to recognize him or herself in it. It is this universality, this sense of the eternal, that makes you stand out.

It is no overstatement to say that you hold the whole universe in each gesture, note, and pitch.  Your work does not merely open minds – it tears through to our core and is a personally revelatory experience.

But you are not easily thrown off course.  Providing access to an expansive, inclusive, multidimensional experience means that everything has to be arranged just right. Unmistakable lucidity and sharp accuracy are at the heart of each of your works.  You have said “I always want my work to have a clarity and a logic—luminosity from lucidity—but I also want the audience to have enough room to be able to move around within the level of connotation and meaning.”

All of these elements make us rediscover a concept that our societies tend to avoid, that of human emotion and feelings.  Long replaced with logic and reason, cynicism, and nowadays, a tragic violence, emotion makes its comeback in your art.  As you have said, your creations “reach toward emotion we have no words for, that we barely remember, […] that affirms the world of feeling in a time and society where feelings are in danger of being eliminated.” 

Dear Meredith, I started mentioning Sala’s journey in Schnitzler’s play. But contrary to Sala, your work does not turn its back to the world; instead it takes place IN the world and uses the universe as a stage. Your creations combine divergent historical contexts, cultural expressions, and creative modes.  They come together in an experience that is at once tragic and uncanny.  They connect us to the present and past while reminding us of a time in the future. You thus construct a sort of anamnesis, a composite of collective stories and moments in time. 

One of the great powers of your artistry is its ability to make us reinterpret our own human legacy.  Films like “Ellis Island” immediately provide audiences with a window into the collective feeling of a historical moment.  With such proximity comes empathy, and a return to human values, which is one of your chief goals. You have said you are “trying to create a theater or a performance place and time that would convey wonder… To know that we have the right to experience the magic of theater… It’s a matter of getting back to and fighting for human values.”

Dear Meredith, your influence is almost as vast as the universe you evoke.  You have impacted the work of artists like Björk and Godard and many others.  

*

Very soon now, Meredith, I will bestow the Officier distinction and seal a relationship with France that began long ago, well before Godard used your song “Do You Be” in his 1990 film La Nouvelle Vague. But this medal does not begin to compensate you for the extraordinary transatlantic links you have forged and the profound admiration of my country toward you. 

Tonight we celebrate your deep sensitivity, your unparalleled emotional insight, and your incredible talent in challenging the limits of traditional creativity. For all of these reasons, I now bestow upon you the title of Officier in the Order of Arts and Letters.

Meredith Monk, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier of l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.

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