I would like to speak about some encounters in my life.
My father is Hungarian, my mother elegant. I am a misfit. I live in the streets.
Fifteen years later, Salvador Dali is sitting in his suite at the Hotel Meurice in Paris, a stack of my drawings on his lap. « The Divine One », as he calls himself, asks me what these scribbles which I am so proud to show him are supposed to resemble. I had wanted to meet him because I hated conventionality. My family knows nothing about my visit to this « eccentric, » nor about my drawings and plans for future novels. I am close to Dali for ten years. We have a great rapport; he is my surreal father and mentor. I do not suspect that twenty years later he will materialize with Gala, in my novel, Sur un air de fête.
At nineteen, I publish my first book, Les Résidences Secondaires, a satire about middle-class families who take off to the country for weekends. It is also a portrait of two adolescents with troubled hearts. This book is an unexpected success. I am asked to dine with members of the French Academy, I write essays for the front pages of serious newspapers. But what do I know about politics? I am already in the middle of another novel, Le Passé Composé, the story of incest between two adolescents.
I am still in revolt against the established order. I meet Marie Laure de Noailles, who represents the essence of rebellion. I want to photograph the eyes that had discovered Miró, Man Ray, Buñuel, Dali, Cocteau, to capture the brilliance of her mind which shines through on her tormented face, already immortalized by Picasso and Balthus. I don’t want to lose her. I also adore her husband, one of the last great gentlemen of extraordinary taste. Their villas, their gardens, their collections, were an unforgettable world. Their style, a civilization, an education. I am haunted by the idea of time passing and I discover that using a camera is a way of holding on to my memories.
It is twenty years after the death of Marie Laure. My portrait of her as the housekeeper of her own palace attracts considerable attention during my first show of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art at the Pompidou Center. Is it her humanity in this image that touches people and makes them question themselves?
This second novel, Le Passé Composé, is too classical for my taste. Aragon cleverly understands that I have been too careful, too respectful of « style ». At the end of his article in Les Lettres Françaises, he concludes: « If he writes like he speaks, F-M B will be the cruellest and funniest painter of the time that will be his. »
My third novel, La tête la première, is a melancholic story of a young painter trying to find himself.
It takes me thirteen long years to write Balthazar, Fils de Famille, in which the young hero is torn between a sadistic father and a narcissistic mother. An unsettling childhood full of terrible battles.
During all this time, my camera never leaves my side.
After Dali and Marie Laure, I find a third conspirator. Madeleine Castaing was a legendary interior decorator, eternally youthful and the epitome of freedom in everything. With two pairs of eyelashes, one false, one real, and a wig held in place by a chin strap, she is like the heroine in Chaplin’s silent films. She had spent her youth among the artists of Montparnasse. She is my first collector, and shows my pictures in her shop window.
On the back of one of them she writes, « Beautiful, but with the help of the model. » One day she invites me to her bedroom. She is wearing a nightgown. « Where is your camera? » She opens the door. Suddenly, she removes her wig, and her real face appears, held tightly by an elastic band. This photograph causes quite a scandal, but she doesn’t care. She even inscribes on the back of the print, « François-Marie Banier is to photography what Daumier and Goya are to painting. »
She inspires the main character in Hôtel du Lac, my first play, where Pascal Greggory, a modern antihero, makes his debut. Then comes a second play, Nous ne connaissons pas la même personne. Alas, I get everything wrong: subject, actors, director, theater. I can still hear the slamming of seats and foldaways on opening night, like shutters in the wind.
I leave for Tangiers with Madeleine. We meet Beckett on the beach. He speaks to me about writing, James Joyce, his mother. I am obsessed about capturing this walking sculpture, this dark voice. In Paris, I find him again, and follow him like a musical refrain. Once I’ve heard his tune, I cannot get it out of my mind.
So it is with Silvana Mangano. I call her my second mother, she calls me her second son. She is surely the most beautiful woman since Nefertiti. I have to translate the emotion that this bird in full flight creates in everyone. I am with her, whether she has enfolded me in her arms, or is dancing in the streets, or is resting in a chair; my camera is there recording everything, a perfectly calibrated seismograph. Her lasts words are, like the secret motto underscoring her whole life: Comportatevi bene; Behave well.
I leaf through this book. Jacqueline Picasso talks from her window to her husband in his tomb… Lili Brik reflects on her life four days before her suicide in Moscow, fifty years after the poet Maiakovski, her lover, had also taken his life. The Queen of England extends her hand to one of my pairs of twins. All of these inescapable encounters are like splashes of ink in the drawings I had shown to Dali: the anonymous passersby in Paris, the celebrities behind their masks, the exceptions like Johnny Depp, who has the same depth and intuitions as Dali, Silvana, Horowitz, Madeleine, or Marie Laure.
One day Samuel Beckett said to me, « You are like a character in a novel: You always arrive when paths are crossing, when everything is changing. » Perhaps he was right, but do I not exist, like every artist, simply to hold back time and catch the emotion in people’s lives at the moment they come into view or disappear, whether for a day or alas forever. All thanks to the camera, which permits, in a blink of an eye, to link the past, our past, to the present.
by François-Marie Banier
This text was written by François-Marie Banier for his book Past/Present published by Schirmer/Mosel in 1997.
Photo: Princesse Caroline de Monaco, 1996, by François-Marie Banier