La Jolla Simic Gallery has a formula

Top hats, wet pavements and a daub of blue

"The snow one? That would be about... $85,000."
  • "The snow one? That would be about... $85,000."
  • Image by Debbie Tilley

A cultivated childhood in Europe is unthinkable without a strained and sulky relationship with paintings. Even among the Anglo-Saxons, the race that during the Reformation defaced their own churches and peeled their frescoes away with pick-axes. Paintings are the prestigious symbols of wealth and sophistication. Therefore, we are condemned from the first to be dragged in a trance around endless miles of art gallery corridors, shrieking, kicking, to no avail, while some stern Olympian uncle holds our hand in an iron grip and makes us recite, backward as well as forward, the names of hundreds of fat, repulsively dimpled Greek nymphs.

"Look, hun, there's the Arc de Triomphe. You’ve been there."

"Look, hun, there's the Arc de Triomphe. You’ve been there."

However, thinking that he has escaped all this by coming to California (escaped, that is, not only the dimpled nymphs but the Bohemians, the Paris street scenes, the nauseating can-can dancers, and all the trappings of the world of art), the visitor one day finds himself on the main shopping street of La folia. And there on Girard Street, as he is passing a luxurious contemporary art gallery named the Simic. he sees something that stops him in his tracks.

Isn’t that a little-known Renoir sitting there coyly in a comer all by itself? An unfamiliar one to be sure. but. well, there is the poppy field, and there is the little girl in a straw boater with a sky-blue silk band ...and there is the unmistakably French woman, in bouffon sleeves and crepe de chine, holding a parasol. There is no question about it. Even the flowering grass is indisputably Renoir.

The sketch is probably one of the Master's early rejected works from which all the later really famous ones were derived. And assuming that it is such, the browser looks more closely at the plaque, already annoyed at being so dose to some real art. But then he feels a twinged relief. No. it’s not a Renoir. Far from it. It’s quite dearly marked there in black and white. This one is a Claude Cambour... yes, a Claude Cambour. A Cambour! It is a Claude Cambour, and he did not spot it!

There can be no nastier shock in store for the European than the discovery that the art galleries d La Jolla have been invaded by French Bohemians. The suspicion that the art capital of the West Coast is the victim of Gallic imperialism must be strong, and not just because of the recent increase in the number of boulangeries. The all-pervasive influence of the croissant, that potent symbol of French frivolity, might be sinister enough, but what are we to do with Claude Cambours in the art galleries. French poppy fields, girls in straw boaters, 1900 gaslamps, and horse-drawn Paris omnibuses? For the artists seem to be almost all French. The landscapes are French. The street scenes are not of San Francisco, London, or Tokyo but d Paris. And the history that has been plundered for the creation d these charming, sunny masterpieces of nostalgia is unconditionally French.

The browser is at once aware of a saleswoman peering at him in curiosity from the far side of a Herb Mignery bronze statue of a cowboy mounted upon a prancing stallion. At first she might have thought he was some negligible tramp, gawking at what he didn’t know and could never own. But then she sees that he is. well, somewhat foreign looking, that his nose is not at all red, that he is wearing some mysterious dark glasses and looking altogether distinctly shifty. There is only one explanation: He is a connoisseur from Europe who is outraged at the incorrect mounting of the painting. And all at once her expression changes. Why. it could even be a dealer or an expert. Or better still, a customer.

Leaning out, she asks him politely if he is interested in the Cambour.

Now, how could anybody fail to be fascinated by a Cambour? Its plagiarists virtuosity. its marvelous dishonesty make it nothing short of wondrous. And the fact that it has tricked our visitor so successfully only increases his interest. He even — and here he has to remind himself that he is still sane — feels like buying it!

"Isn't it beautiful?" the girl says, with what seems to be absolutely genuine admiration.

"And so typical of Cambour," he replies, utterly ashamed to admit his ignorance. ‘Typical of him to put those clouds there like that. And the poppies. How like Cambour to put poppies."

"Yes,” she agrees. "He’s wonderful with poppies."

Feeling his head grow lighter, he follows her through the white stucco Mediterranean porch with its potted plants into the interior of this exclusive temple of art and finds himself at once in a world he had hardly suspected existed. The gallery is divided into small areas, each dedicated to different work, and so as the prospective buyer walks around on the lush red carpet lulled into a state of happy irreality by elevator music, he is dazzled by a rare eclecticism.

The Simic is somewhat like the comfortable living room of a retired naval captain. There are plenty of studded leather chairs, long rosewood tables with bowls of flowers, gold fixtures, and nightmarishly luminous seascapes. In the windows sit little paper shopping bags inscribed with the Simic logo, "The Ultimate Fine Art Experience," stuffed with mysterious wisps of red cellophane; and in almost every corner you will find a forbidding official desk laden with pens, papers, and dossiers waiting for transactions.

The Simic Gallery was founded on July 4, 1986, by Mario Simic. an ex-artist turned what his own literature in French translation describes as "un marchand de tableaux eremite." This sounds a little better than “entrepreneur extraordinaire," even if the latter phrase is every bit as French as the former. Originally located in Carmel, where its HQ is still to be found with a full-time staff of 30 publicists, administrators, and accountants, the Simic “system" has spread to La Jolla and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in the space of only a few years — one of the most spectacularly successful fine art retailing concerns of recent years on the West Coast.

However, according to Simic himself, there is no danger of this highly sophisticated, computerized apparatus alienating his artists. The company currently has 90 to 100 painters and sculptors on its books and. from an average annual application rate of about 500, continues to take on-board a dozen new faces every year. What saves his enterprise from the callousness of a machine, according to the man in a dinner jacket and bow tie whom we see radiantly smiling from the cover of his color brochure, is the personal touch.

"We’re involved with the roots of art, not the branches. So many new movements that we have seen have been branchings out. I feel that now the movement is back towards the roots because of the traditional values that are reintroduced and the conservative ways. You don’t need to be an art expert to know that these paintings are good. They can be appreciated very easily, without having to ask questions. They give the viewer a lot of warm feelings. That’s the type of art we handle.”

Nor does Simic ignore the poor old artists themselves. “How lonesome their lives are, locked up in a studio, sometimes for hours a day. They don't see anything. We think of artists in glorious ways, having fun and everything. Painting is really a lot of hard work because it is very emotional. It is painful. Being an artist myself. I know that."

It is difficult to imagine the robust fellow in the photographs that hang in one of the smaller rooms, who looks like the playful mafioso type with a fast-car habit, hacking off his own ear a la Van Gogh. Mario may know the meaning of artistic agony, but somehow his love of fun comes over much more clearly. Bernard Schanz, the manager of the Girard Street store, may know that agony too. for did he not begin as an artist too — in fact, a painter of those

translucent seascapes that so deeply search the soul?

Yet he knows as well as Simic that life is not all pain and hard work. Selling paintings, like collecting them, is fun. Lotsa fun.

This does not mean, of course, that art selling at Simic is slapdash. Nothing could be further from the truth. The buyer here is treated with a mixture of courtesy and financial expertise that is reminiscent more of a Ferrari showroom than an art gallery. Resale options are closely discussed. Certificates of authenticity are renewed automatically every year, signed by Simic himself. And the buyers are constantly kept abreast of the investment climate by means of catalogues, calendars, and notifications of new work, all distributed to them through the computer system.

It is a remarkable commercial organism. And the gratitude of all those involved in it to Mario Simic is proved by a gold-on-wood trophy hanging in one of the rooms. It bears a small gold wreath with the following inscription beneath it: “Presented to Mario Simic by the Entire Staff of Simic Galleries and All The Artists In Recognition and Gratitude And For His Services to Art and Without Whose Vision. Commitment and Entrepreneurial Brilliance None of This Would Have Been Possible."

Which proves that even sycophancy has its own 18th-century prose style.

As for the gallery itself, it is a disconcerting crossroads. For here Sunday shoppers from Carlsbad and Del Mar meet Renoir, or what they think is Renoir, and the more familiar lighthouse pictures of Jacquelyn Kresman. To the twanging sound of Hawaiian guitars, retired patio constructors and foam-cushion salesmen from Solana Beach wander around marveling at the amazing realism of those twilight beach scenes, lighthouses, and dolphins.

In the largest exhibiting room, just such a couple, Bobo and June, stand before a huge painting called Maui Memories. A great sheet of water foaming over sand. June, in her faux-satin mulberry slacks and tennis shirt, looks at it half upside down and murmurs, "That’s Maui, hun. You were there just last year."

"What, Maui?"

“Maui. Recognize it?"

With a disappointed grunt. Bobo says he can’t recognize it. It is clearly very important to be able to recognize the place in the picture. And it is to no avail that a beaming salesman comes bearing down upon them crooning. "You get a tan just looking at the sunlight in her pictures!” for they have moved on to the lighthouses; and Bobo, his hair glittering with oil, has stepped right up to get a good look at those waves.

"That’s amazing.” he murmurs.

"Recognize it?" June calls out.

"Nah. Never seen it."

Bobo looks disgusted, but the salesman tries again.

"Do you folks collect art?” he beams.

"We just started.” June confesses, looking a little sheepish.

"Wel,l” says the Simic man, "I started ten years ago. Yeah. It’s fun. Lotsa fun.”

And they all nod their heads in meditative silence.

Bobo and June, however, are not the only people for whom locations are important. In one smallish but prestigious room are located most of the Paris street scenes. It is with an eerie sense of deja vu that the visitor enters here, for these small canvases by Edouard Cortes, Anne Champeaux, Gregory Sievers, and Galien-Laloue are nothing but maps to the tourist imagination: painting reduced to nothing but a sense of place.

Take the amiable Gregory Sievers.

Sievers’s paintings are hung in the same room as the Paris street specialists because that is the genre he has now decided to specialize in. Our visitor is somewhat struck by the frankly surreal quality to these mauvish, crepuscular snapshots of Parisian tourist destinations and asks the intelligent young assistant sitting at the desk by the door to the room if she knows what area of the city Sievers lives in.

“He lives in Idaho." she says, smiling faintly.

Sievers, it seems, began by painting Western art — perhaps something akin to the half-naked Hiawatha-style pinups and crinkled Apache medicine men so common in the galleries of La Jolla — then switched to Paris because, as the girl says. "Paris is very marketable."

Having moved into the Paris street scene market because it is so phenomenally profitable. Sievers has branched out into commissions. For a mere $2000, the Utrillo of Idaho will paint you a Tour Eiffel or an Arc de Triomphe for your very own bathroom or salon — which is a fraction of what you will have to pay for any bona fide Frenchman.

For next to Sievers's odd productions stand the real Parisians. There is Anne Champeaux. whose Notre Dame de Saint Michel, a mere 13-by-18, will sell for $3500; and the more estimable Antoine Blanchard, whose impressionistic little atyscapes filled with horse-drawn trams, the obligatory wet pavements, and top hats will set you back $27,000. But more prestigious still, more even than the wily Claude Cambour. are the two grandfathers of the Paris Street school: Galien-Lafou and the Franco-Spaniard Edouard Cortes.

After Utrillo, Cortes is perhaps the most influential of the Parisian street painters. He was bom in 1882 and made his debut in Paris in 1902 with an exhibition of small "night scenes" of the city. His little paintings of the French capital, always frozen in the same age of the Belle Epoque, lyrical and prosaic at the same time, are visions of Bohemian Paris at its most commercially exportable. Indeed, this vision of France has blossomed into a kind of international language all its own. A language of emotive kitsch as flagrant as that of the lemur-like weeping infants immortalized by the legendary Keanes. And this language has its own wispy vocabulary. One that includes, naturally, the horse-drawn trams (indeed, the assistant points out that Cortes buyers have the choice between "the cars and the trams." since some of his later pictures of the ’30s do have automobiles in them, though the overall mood and style are unchanged).

Cortes's paintings are something more, or less, than painting. They are refined and genuine premonitions of kitsch. The triumph of kitsch is always a fascinating phenomenon that has its own dynamism. But here, the artful impressionists of kitsch (for that is what they are) have done away with the unconvincing kitsch of the present and have retreated into the infinitely more convincing kitsch of the past. And they have taken our visitor with them.

As he is musing there all alone, another salesperson glides up to him, this time an older woman, and slips into his hand the weighty Cortes dossier. The first sheet bears the smiling image of Mr. Simic, who looks like a lithe and well-fed young Mason and who has written there that it is the personal involvement of the painter with his subject that he intends to encourage. An intimacy between painter and viewer. But looking at these demure peeps of the Paris streets of a century ago, it strikes him that these are assembled products, production-line objects similar to makeup kits or toy cars. The heroic Cortes has become the Ford of the kitsch market. And the real Bohemia has simply become a framed one.

"His paintings," the dossier informs, "express the romance, charisma, and charm of Paris through his brilliant use of brush work and through the use of color, perspective, and illusion of detail. He excels in painting lighted windows and street lamps, the play of lights on wet pavements, crowded streets and horse-drawn street cats. His palette ranges from soft grey hues and browns, to vivid reds, yellows and oranges. A splash of purple may be a man’s tailored dinner jacket, or a stroke of blue may become a woman’s cloak ... "

What a satisfying account this is of the world of Cortes. That sly genius realized that painting could be avoided altogether if pictures were simply put together with a few ingredients. For there are the wet pavements glittering with clever reflections, the leafless trees adding a usefully melancholy touch, the bundles of top hats in the cafes, the gaslamps with their mournful auras, the cafes lit up like horizontal Christmas trees and. last but not least — indeed most important of all — the horse-drawn omnibuses plowing their way through a vanished city.

In Paris itself, the same industrious "Bohemians’’ sell their wet pavements and Sacre Coeur vistas in the Place du Tertre and in the little galleries on the Butte in Montmartre to industrial workers on holiday from the Ruhr and Japanese housewives with rolls of notes the size of Krupp shells.

And in La Jolla, the market is not altogether different. The gallery is filled with Japanese with camcorders strapped to their wrists, pleasantly surprised, perhaps, by the fact that an Antoine Blanchard costs only a fifth in La Jolla what it costs in Tokyo. They buy them for their bedrooms or as corporate investments. For, as Simic observes. "Many in the art of business have enthusiastically embraced the business of art."

And adding luster to the corporate image is not the only advantage of owning sentimental vignettes of Parisian street scenes. These guys are going to be Old Masters before you can blink. And the warmth that they radiate from the walls on which they are hung creates "a successful environment in which it is enjoyable to conduct business."

It is clear that painting is now seen as a "finishing touch to your decor." And as he is ogling at yet another glimpse of the Madeleine in a snowstorm, the older saleswoman returns and taps him gently on the shoulder. Ha face is a vision of beatitude.

"So you like the Cortes?" she says, as if asking a child if it likes a certain flavor of candy. "Aren't they lovely? He really does have a way with a wet pavement.” Well, yes, the pavements are certainly masterly. Could he ask. though, just tentatively, how much one might actually pay for one of these delightful, indigenous creations?

She raises ha eyebrows sweetly as if trying hard to remember and then says, very softly. "The snow one? That would be about... $85,000."

She hardly has time to see his hand slip away from his chin and his throat contract so suddenly that he is left trying to discreetly squeeze his Adam’s apple with his forefinger and thumb in an attempt to qudl a rising regurgitation. He nods affably as if that sounds a reasonable price and then, as if floating on air. asks if. in her opinion, a Cortes is. so to speak, likely to appreciate.

"Oh. most definitely. About 15 percent a year. Everyone is very happy with their Cortes."

"Fifteen percent a year?"

"As we say. they really are lovely masterpieces."

In Simicspeak, this means that they transmit to the lonely spectator a gush of "warm feelings." Warm feelings and 15 percent pa annum can only be described as a duo of limitless charm... but the price...

Now. it seems to him that he i could spend all day here, what with the endless variety of French scenes from the illustrious brushes of Rene Biegter, Sievers, Paul Valere, and the remarkable Antoine Blanchard. But then, on the other hand, since all the components are interchangeable, he has only to find the right price and the right pa annum accumulation of interest to put his mind at rest and arrive at a decision. And come to think of it, what is wrong with these Champeaux vignettes with their cuddly dabs, their engaging reflections, and their suggestive little clumps of silk top hats? No question of the $85,000 or even the $150,000 necessary to buy a Cortes, and yet practically the same thing. Could some French School scholar armed with a magnifying glass really differentiate between a Cortes gaslamp and a Champeaux one? Or a Blanchard tram and a Sievers one? With a slow, uneasy movement, he reaches for his wallet and brings it out. The saleswoman raises ha eyebrows again. They are flexible with triumph.

So he has chosen the snowscape? Well, he couldn’t have done better One of the Master's best. And at a reasonable price. To what address would he like them to send his trophy?

He looks at them awkwardly and says that, if it’s all the same to them, he'd as soon take it out with him. There is certainly a ripple of surprise at this announcement But. after all, he is the customer, and they know that opinionated buyers do have their little whims. Of course he can take it with him.

While the precious object is being carefully wrapped and boxed in another room, the buyer waits nervously in the gallery staring out of the show windows. He is almost alone again, except for a salesman and what looks like a local housewife who has also gone so far as to open a large checkbook covered with pretty pictures of moorhens. Is she a nature lover interested in the painting they are standing before, a portrait of a humpbacked whale? The salesman is explaining to ha why the Argentinian artist who painted it is so worthy of her interest.

"The fact of the matter is," he says, open ing his palms wide, as if dealing with a fact he can’t account for. "he’s a very good looking guy ... the Navarro type. He travels to Patagonia every year to paint the Orcas killing the sea lion.” And seeing her face suddenly fall, quickly adds. “Well, that is, I mean, you know, chasing them..."

While he is eavesdropping in this way. he sees that Bobo and June have finally turned up in the French room. Bobo is looking a little tired by now. but June is suddenly excited at all these cute pictures of Paris. For now, at last, she recognizes some places.

"Look, hun, there's the Arc de Triomphe. You’ve been there."

Bobo takes out his glasses and stares at the funny horseshoe thing spattered all over the canvas and turns up his nose. A flash of recognition seems to light up his face for a second but then subsides. He shakes his head in distaste.

"Don't you recognize it?" June says in dismay.

"Nah. Don't recognize that one either.”

June shrugs and shakes her head.

"Well, at least it’s been fun," she murmurs.

And Bobo shrugs too, thrusting his big fists into his bright, tight peppermint slacks.

"Yeah. Lotsafun."

At last, though, the visitor has his package. The staff shake his hand warmly and send him on his way with various eulogies of both his impeccable taste and the ineffable brush work of his prize. He feels sensually elated. It is a brilliant sunny day. and the palms bordering the shiny avenues seem to corroborate in his mind the impression of handsomeness he has now come to associate with the artists of Girard Street. The Argentinian, for example. He'll bet he really is the Navarro type. And couldn’t Champeaux be the same? Indeed, how could she be anything but beautiful?

But as he is gaily striding once more across the green toward his car, his painting neatly tucked under one arm, and as he is scornfully making his way past the La Jolla Shuffleboard and Bridge Club, he is stopped in his tracks by a sight even more disquieting than the one he has left behind. For under one of the large trees in the middle of the green, barely visible at first but gradually quite distinct, stands what can only be described as a tousled goblin. He blinks and shades his eyes. For a moment he feels a cold shiver of disbelief descend his spine and enter his nether regions.

it is a dwarf in a smock, adorned with a large, unruly, reddish beard, soaping frantically and passionately away at a large canvas fixed to the easel, his head covered with a huge, loose velvet hat.

As disbelief gives way to alarm, he approaches as cautiously as before and sees with disgust that this perverted gnome is laboring away with incredible speed and sureness erf touch at a complex scene of a large, smoke-filled room crammed with chalky-thighed can-can dancers. And not only that, but on this alien's pale hands he can clearly see the characteristic lesions of what he takes at once to be the signs of advanced syphilis.

In that calm and sunlit square of grass, this abomination working away at his creation, and there is nothing to do but approach him silently from behind. Pale as death now, his face become the taut mask of a mass killer, the art buyer creeps on tiptoe to within striking distance of the shriveled little back. He then raises one foot with careful aim and delivers a ferocious blow to the runt’s crotch. And as the dwarf shrieks in pain, keels over to one side, and collapses in a bloody heap on the grass, the owner of a sparkling Champeaux straightens his tie, smooths down his hair, and walks on with a radiant look of utter serenity fixed to his face, calmly admiring as he goes the beveled edges of an emerald lawn and the blue sky of a perfect day.

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