Jean Carzou, L’Apocalypse, 1959
The best-selling San-Antonio series (1949-2000), with millions of copies sold over the course of five decades, represents one of the most enduring and successful legacies of Noir literature in FranceOf course San-Antonio’s novels are, for the most part, a pastiche and a parody of the post-war French craze for noir literature and cinema. From the mid 1940s on, the early books in the Série Noire, with their idiosyncratic translations and taste for slang and puns, had popularised and “frenchified” authors such as Chase, Cheyney and Chandler. Clearly derivative, San-Antonio’s books thus appear as rhapsodic variations on what was already a French interpretation of the Noir genre. Nonetheless, San-Antonio was anxious to satisfy Noir lovers, and fulfil his readers’ generic horizon of expectations. Each San-Antonio novel can therefore be read simply as a noir novel, complete with all the archetypal and architextual modalities of the genre. The pace and tone, the narrative structure, the body count, the iconic characters (from wise-cracking detective to femme fatale victims), situations and settings all remind the reader that San-Antonio writes according to a Noir formula. San-Antonio acknowledges that Noir is more than a collection of violent themes; it is a mood, a style, and a mode of representation; it is a multi-media, international culture. Thus San-Antonio often relies on references to other media instead of describing a situation himself . This both sets the tone and increases the pace of the narration. For example, in J’ai bien l’honneur de vous buter (1955) San-Antonio uses intertextual (Simenon) and intermedial (Carzou) references to speed up his description of a setting redolent of Film Noir atmospheres :
“France is the colour of soot today […] Cranes looking as if they were ink-painted, set against the greyness! It’s as if a novel by Simenon had been illustrated by Carzou.” (“La France est couleur de suie aujourd’hui […] Des grues dessinées à l’encre de Chine sur la grisaille ! Un vrai Simenon illustré par Carzou”). Carzou had been voted in the same year (1955) by the monthly Magazine Connaissance des Arts one of the most influential post-war artists (together with Bazaine, Buffet, and de Staël). Some 20 years later, Carzou is still for San-Antonio an unsurpassable referent. A later book by San-Antonio shows “a universe as Carzou would have painted it: it’s all girders, metallic frames … there is a huge crane. (“On voit un univers à la Carzou. Des poutrelles, des carcasses métalliques… Une énorme grue” ; San-Antonio, Met ton doigt où j’ai mon doigt, Fleuve Noir, 1974)
Jean Carzou, L’Apocalypse, Paris, 1957 Original Exhibition Poster
Clearly San-Antonio related to Carzou’s disconsolate, post-apocalyptic visions. He also understood their affinity with the noir worldview, the pessimistic, angst-ridden, existentialist outlook characteristic of many noir works, in print or on film. There are echoes of Carzou in his own work, including the novels he signed under the name Frédéric Dard. A figurative painter, Carzou excelled in painting the absence of man. Some of his most memorable paintings (La Cheminée (1956); Le quai (1956); La Cité nucléaire (1956); La Cage (1957); Le scenic railway (1957); Les rails (1957), for example) are devoid of any visible human presence. They seem a celebration of nothingness. Like Buffet, Carzou’s works often represent places of circulation, communication, spectacle and business as figurations of loneliness. Like Giacometti, his extended, vertical lines are uncanny witnesses of their time. They convey a sense of alienation, deprivation, and despair. An immensely sad worldview permeates his art, his realistic subject matter re-imagined through the filter of a traumatised imagination.
Ballpoint pen drawing, 1959 (expertissim.com)
Ballpoint pen drawing, 1959 (expertissim.com)
A trained architect, Carzou favoured panoramic views of industrial and urban spaces. The scale of his paintings is usually very large (in a cinematic sense, they could be described as an extreme long shot), suggesting wide linear spaces, deep perspectives and great depth of field. His chosen subjects appear at once banal and mysteriously timeless. There are hieratic, awe-inspiring, and lifeless constructions. Filled with angular shapes, a bleakness of light, and barren spaces, they seem dead or abandoned. There are monumental ruins, and deserted places. Following WW2 and the catastrophes at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, his depictions of a fragile and cold world evoke a deserted, post nuclear planet. Scattered lines which once served communication and traffic have become inextricable, virtually indistinguishable and useless. Full of grids and scaffolding, separations and closures, his paintings suggest views which are defended, concealed, or even inaccessible.
Jean Carzou, Les Miradors, 1959