Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Artist Paul Gauguin on Fencing

Portrait of Gauguin from 1891

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a one of the leading post-impressionistic painters. He was also an accomplished fencer.
Gauguin was born in Paris and lived a short while in Peru before returning to France where he served in the French navy and worked as a stockbroker. Here he developed friendships with the artists Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh, who helped to encourage his passion for painting. Eventually frustrated by a lack of recognition and funds, Gauguin moved to Tahiti, where he created some of his most famous works. Of curious note, Paul Gauguin is listed as one of the saints of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (nothing to do with the Catholic Church), an organization based on the philosophical law of Thelema developed by Aleister Crowley in the early 1900’s. Other saints include Odysseus, Merlin and Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Painting by Gauguin of Brittany Landscape 1881

Gaugin studied fencing with a master named Grisier. In his published journals a long section describes the views and opinions of the artist on fencing. It is an interesting look at fencing of the late nineteenth century. Gauguin gives advice on fencing, accounts of some of his encounters, and is critical of the military fencing academy.

No more painting, no more literature; the time has come to talk of arms. It happens that we have here now a real gendarme. . . . You understand. . . . He comes from Joinville le Pont!! He’s a terrible swashbuckler. Joinville represents, in a way, the prix de Rome of physical exercises.
There’s a good deal in its teaching to be taken or left. For my own personal part, I should leave it.
The fencing-masters turned out at Joinville le Pont are generally very expert fellows, expert in the art of the cudgel blow. They are certainly very able, but they are acrobats and usually cannot do much with their pupils.

Fencing at Joinville la Pont

The saying goes, Have a good hand, and you will touch sometimes. Have a good hand and good legs and you will touch often. Add a good head, and you will always touch.

A good head, that is what they do not give you at Joinville. They teach without discernment there.

The game of foils consists in making use of two movements; the others are developed from them or are supplementary.
A backward and forward movement, and a turning movement.
In the attack, they are called, One, two, three and double
In the defence, they are called Opposition and counter.
Simple as they are, these movements are capable of an enormous number of combinations. To know them well is to be skilful already.

The regimental fencing-master, who excels in tiring you out, keeps you doing one, two, three and double for a whole year; at the end, when the pupil wishes to make the least little attack, he loses his head. “What shall I do?” he wonders, “Come, one, two” He attacks, he disengages; his adversary takes the counter. It doesn’t work. Naturally!
Your movements ought to correspond with the parade.
It is essential, therefore, for the instructor to make the pupil really understand by giving him his lesson slowly and thwarting by his parade the movement commanded. Thus, for example, he gives the command one, two, but instead of an opposition he parries gently with a counter, so that the pupil attentively follows the parade and acts accordingly. Now in regard to execution, they have a principle at Joinville le Pont which they will not give up: Throw your arm out and lunge. But this makes it impossible for the adversary to misjudge the distance; if he is attentive to the movement of the knee, he is constantly forewarned.

Good civilian fencing-masters do quite differently. The arm is stretched out gradually and the feint, which is often useless, is only incidental.
We are willing to be corrected if we must be, but we distinctly maintain that one should use one’s arms according to the way in which one is built.
Thus, for example, as I have a weak wrist and a delicate hand, I accustomed myself to use the muscles of the arm, with all the strength concentrated in the small of the arm.
As I have a very large chest and did not take up the practice of arms until very late, it was impossible for me, except with the greatest discomfort, to hold myself according to regulations, almost covered on the two lines. So without any discomfort, with my chest unprotected, I accustomed myself to offer only a single line to my adversary, always opening the engagement in tierce (today they say in sixte).

I remember a certain first-class fencing-master at the Salle Hiacinte in Paris. This instructor had arms and especially legs that were very small, and he was in the habit of using his legs as if he had little wheels under the balls of his feet. He never lunged, but by means of a series of little steps, now forward, now back, he would be out of reach or directly upon you at once. The head . . . always the head! You have a strong wrist, then wear your adversary out with attacks, press him hard with sustained energy. But if your hand is weak, let it skilfully parry all attacks, without attacking itself. In fencing there are no dogmas, any more than there are secret thrusts.

During my stay at Pont-Aven, the harbour-master and fish-warden was a Breton of the place, a retired sailor who was a fencing-master with a diploma from this famous school of Joinville le Pont. With his help, we opened a little fencing-school which, in spite of the low charges, brought him a little income that gave him great satisfaction. He was a fine old boy and a pretty good fencer, but not intelligent either as a fencer or as an instructor. He really had no understanding of the science of arms. All he knew he had got through stubbornness and endless practice.

From the first day, I saw that the poor man had very short legs, so I, who am tall and long-legged, amused myself between whiles making him mistake his distances, the result being that, in spite of his skill of hand, he was always inches away from his mark. I talked to him about it, but I might as well have been speaking Hebrew. Fortunately the old boy was not proud, and for a while I became his instructor in all sorts of ways. I gave him lessons in the manner I have described above, that is, opposing the pupil, during the lesson, with parades different from those that had been announced. Before long, we had an excellent master and the pupils made rapid progress.

To mistake distances. It is evident that if you are going to attack, you must, without letting anyone perceive it, come, with your elbows to your body, as close to your adversary as possible, by an extension of the arm and a certain trick of stepping. In this way, the arm extending stealthily, that is to say, in proportion to its movements, touches its mark without the help of the legs. In the same way, in the opposite case, your arm ought to be extended, you ought to lean slightly forward; then you have the advantage of the whole length of your arm and a certain distance which you gain in resuming the upright position.

The military fencing-masters teach you not to attack until very late, that is to say, when the pupil is discouraged. . . . A civilian master, almost at the beginning, ends the lesson with a lesson in attack, allowing certain openings, making certain mistakes, all this very slowly, so that in no case does the pupil form the habit of muffing. What, I have made an attack and you have not disengaged? What, I have parried with an opposition and you have tried to double? And so on. In this way the pupil, interested from the very beginning, learns the science of arms and is accustomed from the first to apply the lesson in an attack, and makes very rapid progress, without, however, tiring himself out as if he were an acrobat.

The various fencing-matches that take place in Paris every year are the proof of what I have just been saying, for one sees fencing-masters beaten by civilians who have had ten times less practice than they.

The head, it is always the head.

Our excellent master at Pont-Aven was very much astonished when one fine autumn day there arrived at the fencing-school a pair of swords, a present from an American pupil who had well-lined pockets. In a match with the professor, I showed him that this again was quite a different game.

Certainly one must always begin the study of arms with foils; that is the best foundation. But one has to apply this knowledge quite differently in a duel. In a duel, the question is not one of correctly touching certain specified spots; here everything counts. One must consider that on the field dangerous strokes are also dangerous for oneself.

A man who parries well and returns cleverly is a fine swordsman.

There is no regular position; it is the adversary who indicates to us the position we ought to assume. Everything is unforeseen, everything is irregular. In a way, it is a game of checkers. The victory is to him who deceives the other and is the last to be tired out. Beware of having your nails underneath, for a strong blow will surely disarm you. Your arm should be extended slowly, and in the line of tierce; otherwise a binding of the blade is to be feared. The contrary is true if your adversary is left handed.

Study your adversary carefully, find out what are his favourite parades, unless he is too clever and plays the game they play at school—evens and odds. In this case, you must have very irregular and unexpected movements in order to make your adversary believe you are about to do something quite different from what you intend.

I could write at length on this subject, but I hope the reader has sufficiently understood.

Finally, if you have to do with an adversary who clearly out-matches you, guard yourself well and, at the least forward movement on his part, present your arm to his point. Honour is satisfied and you get off with a trifling wound.

On the other hand; if you have before you someone who has never fenced, take care, he is dangerous. He uses a sword simply as he does a stick, slashing up and down. Do not hesitate, make the counterpoint, and a blow on the head or in the face will properly settle him for you.

I have met many braggarts in my life, especially on trips to the colonies. You have only to talk with fellows like this for a few moments to know how to deal with them. Thus a little solicitor, whom I have already introduced to you, told me one day that he was a terrible fellow, as he had spent fifteen years in a fencing-school—he, a little shrimp whose sex and species it would have been hard to specify!

I seized the opportunity, one day when I had been asked to lunch with him on a certain warship, to bring the conversation around to this subject. I said to him, “I have not spent fifteen years in a fencing-school, but I’ll wager you a hundred francs and give you eight to ten.” Naturally he did not take me up.

In the regiment, the officers do not go to the fencing-school, they prefer going to the club to play cards. As for the soldiers, it is a bore all round, for them and the master alike. Some show a turn for it; they are made assistant masters.

In military training they make use of the body but never of the head.

I have often had occasion to cross swords with these assistant masters; they are all of them unintelligent hacks.

It is almost the same thing at school. You must have some knowledge of fencing to enter St. Cyr, and the master tries to earn his money as peacefully as he can.

Fencing at Saint-Cyr
I remember those days. We had as our master the famous Grisier, who used to send us his assistant. (I do not remember his name, but he must still be alive, for he has a fencing-school in Paris.) This assistant was celebrated for his thrusts.
Old Grisier used to come sometimes, engage with the foil in his right hand, and with his left hand manage to give us a light tap on the cheek. I have received them. It was really an honour he did us, calling it the Grisier thrust. He had been the Czar of Russia’s fencing-master.

Painting of a fencer by Gari Melchers 1893
I have talked enough about fencing, and you must excuse me. It is all because of this famous gendarme who comes from Joinville le Pont. But I am not going to let you off, just the same. I am .going to bore you now with a little lesson in boxing. Another chance for a little boasting!