Artistry and Eroticism: A Review of Joann Sfar's Pascin by Max Bledstein
Artistry and Eroticism: A Review of Joann Sfar’s Pascin
Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
Joann’s Sfar’s Pascin (Trans. Edward Gauvin. Minneapolis: Uncivilized, 2016) takes a whimsical, lyrical, and charming look at the life of Julius Mordecai Pincas—better known as “Pascin” (pronounced “pass-KIN”)—a Jewish modernist artist born in Bulgaria towards the end of the nineteenth century. Pascin moved to Paris in the early twentieth century, and key artistic figures who lived in the city contemporaneously such as Ernest Hemingway, Marc Chagall, and Chaïm Soutine all make appearances throughout Sfar’s graphic biography.
To depict Pascin’s story, Sfar relies on a non-linear, episodic narrative style which consists of often fanciful anecdotes capturing a variety of moments in the artist’s life. The vignettes cover topics ranging from Pascin’s sexuality, friendships, childhood, and artistic process. Together, these episodes form a portrait of Pascin account aiming to be as freewheeling, bawdy, and creative as the artist himself.
Sfar’s lack of interest in tight structure or rigid form also pertains to the art style, which occasionally flirts with uniformity but mostly conforms only to what a given moment requires. Pascin rarely features consecutive pages with panels of similar sizes and shapes, and Sfar’s black and white inking often leaks beyond the panels’ jagged edges. Within the panels, Sfar favours busy images of characters existing within detailed backgrounds of urban life and landscape, but he also forgoes cordoning off images altogether when it doesn’t suit his purpose. Memorably, Sfar uses occasional full page images to highlight particularly important moments, such as the haunting drawing of a man clinging dearly to a mannequin in bed. Sfar similarly fluctuates between styles when depicting people, whose faces and bodies fluctuate between realism and caricature, sometimes on the same page. Overall, as he does with narrative, Sfar shifts his art throughout the comic to fit the needs of a particular event rather than stick to a singular style or vision.
Most frequently, the art depicts Pascin’s conflicts over his sexuality, both in terms of how they relate to his work and to his life more broadly. The two overlap in the opening vignette, in which his lover Lucy notes that he feels compelled to draw anything which gives him an erection. His sexuality continues to be a theme as the scene develops, since the two discuss whether or not they can sleep with other people, and he gets furious at the suggestion that she might cheat (in spite of his desire to do so, and his knowledge of her husband). Pascin’s ability to get an erection comes up once again in one of the final vignettes, entitled “The Cuckoo,” in which he performs oral sex on a married woman but finds himself impotent when he tries to penetrate her. Humourously, Sfar gives speech balloons to Pascin’s penis in this scene, as it says “Wa-wah” and “Limp.” The encounter ends with yet another memorable full page image, as the couple lies naked on a bed while caressing each other’s genitals. “Bla bla bla…” reads Pascin’s speech balloon; Sfar mocks the artist yet again.
Similar mockery also happens between Pascin and his male friends as they cavort through Paris. Soutine is burdened with constant feelings of inadequacy around Pascin, both because of his own insecurities and Pascin’s willingness to exploit them. After Pascin leaves Lucy, Soutine comes over and begs to see her naked, revealing his desire to want what Pascin has. This dynamic continues as he reenters and calls Soutine, “My headless chicken, my drawn-and-quartered Lithuanian hare,” to which he responds by taking Pascin along with him to the butcher rather than fighting back. Although the criminal Toussaint evinces a more masculine persona than Soutine, Pascin still turns their relationship into one of aggressive competition and one-up-man-ship. Art and sexuality once again become intertwined through their competitiveness, as Pascin taunts Toussaint for struggling to draw a naked Kiki de Montparnasse, following which she engages in sexual acts with both men.
The scene epitomizes Sfar’s depiction of women throughout the comic, which ranges from sophomoric crudity to mean-spirited misogyny. A pre-adolescent Pascin visits a brothel with money stolen from his father, where Pascin, in one of the comic’s most surreal images, climbs atop an adult sex worker’s back while she crawls on her hands and knees. That he appears to be a quarter of her size diminishes the ugly reality of the situation, which only increases as he calls her a “horse,” then a “whore,” then makes her cry in order to draw her while tears run down her face. Sfar appears to be increasingly unconcerned with sexualizing children as the comic progresses, particularly through the adult Pascin’s relationship with the fifteen year-old daughter, Ada, of the elder statesman Lithuanian artist Antanas. Although Sfar doesn’t explicitly condone any of the behaviour, his lack of critique endorses Pascin’s pedophiliac interests by nature of its omission.
Sfar’s treatment of the relationship with Ada is particularly disturbing when considered in conjunction with the depiction of Pascin as a liberated sexual being. Graphic drawings of naked bodies and sexual acts abound throughout the comic, and the relations with children become just another part of the bacchanalian romp. Pascin is also unafraid to embrace his homoerotic desires, such as when he fantasizes about performing oral sex on the husband of a woman he meets at a brothel or describes himself as “a regular fairy” in order to instigate a fight. Although these scenes have the upside of lauding Pascin for his sexual liberation, they have the potential to embody a reactionary stance equating homosexuality with pedophilia when read in conjunction with Pascin’s childhood brothel outings or later attraction to Ada.
This troubling depiction of sexuality undermines Sfar’s ability to critique the relationship between Pascin’s aggressive sexual tendencies and his artistry. The comic works towards such a critique in drawing a connection between Pascin’s impotence and his capacity to draw, but Sfar undermines his efforts at coherence through the whimsy with which he depicts sexual acts between children and adults. Pascin deserves credit for being an entertaining look at the life of an important artist, yet such praise should be tempered by Sfar’s failure to critique his subject when he deserves it.
Pascin’s paintings can be viewed via The Barnes Foundation