Huguette Martel: Painter, Writer

Born in France, Huguette Martel took up painting soon after her arrival in America in the late 1950s, studying art at Cooper Union. Although she first applied her talents to abstract expressionism, she later went on to create narrative works, combining small paintings with text. In autobiographical work, she re-created her early youth during World War II when her Jewish family hid out in the French countryside and her postwar life with adoptive Russian parents after she lost her mother. Among other subjects, she discovered a love for painting animals and telling stories about them. She has been a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Narrative magazine, and has been exhibited in galleries. Martel and her family were original tenants at Westbeth.

Because of pandemic protocols, Terry Stoller spoke on the telephone with Huguette Martel in May 2021. They discussed her transition from large works to small paintings along with writing, her work as a cartoonist, her love for the act of writing, the subject matter of her books, in particular the animals she loves to paint, and her studio at Westbeth through the years, as well as her move back to Westbeth as a resident in the 2010s.

Terry Stoller: I read that your early paintings were large abstract expressionist works.

Huguette Martel: I was very young when I came to New York in 1957. I started painting at Cooper Union. It was the time of the abstract expressionists, and I did some large abstract paintings in school.

Did you continue with that for a while?

Yes, I did.

You’ve had a studio at Westbeth for a long time.

Yes, I’m very lucky. I love it.

When you got that studio, were you doing the large paintings there?

No, the first studio was tiny, and I think that’s when I started doing small paintings.

So the size of your studio led to a transition to new forms.

That’s true. I hadn’t thought of it. But that’s exactly what happened.

You collaborated on a children’s book, The Secret of the Gourmandy, published in 1975.

I didn’t collaborate. Somebody else did the illustrations. I wrote the story. Macmillan, which was the publisher, took care of the illustrations. I had nothing to do with that. I did give a few examples of illustrations from the stories, but they chose their own illustrator.

In your book about your early years in France, you wrote that your brother Maurice taught you the importance of art. And you started to write poetry. Was that your beginning as a writer?

I wrote poetry when I was very young in France. Terrible poetry.

What inspired you to write the children’s story?

I wrote quite a few children’s stories. The Secret of the Gourmandy was the only one that was published. I loved writing. I never thought I could really write for adults, but I tried it for children. I think I loved using English in a funny way—it was not my mother tongue. Writing for children allowed me to write in any style I wanted, imitating styles of writers I liked, like Victorian writers.

About fifteen years later, in the early 1990s, you began publishing cartoons in the New Yorker. How did you get started in that genre?

That was a kind of miracle. I always did some kind of cartoons, drawings, some paintings with text. I started doing that a very long time ago, maybe in that small studio. And somebody showed samples of my drawings and text to someone who worked at the New Yorker. They called me, in fact—I never called them. They called me to say they had seen some of my work, and they were interested. I didn’t have to struggle to get in.

I’m wondering about the process. Your cartoons are distinctive. Did the editors choose the subject matter?

No, they never did. Once a week, I went to the New Yorker office. The art director was Lee Lorenz—he’s a cartoonist. You brought what you had done. It was totally up to you. He either took the cartoons or not. Everything had to come from the cartoonist.

How did you come up with the subject matter?

I used to really struggle because I didn’t think I was a cartoonist. I’m not sure where they came from. It’s the way all my stories come. I write things down and write and write till something comes. I don’t think beforehand. It’s the writing that inspires me.

For the New Yorker, you were doing mostly black and white sketches, although you did have some in color.

I remember—that’s my greatest pride—Lee Lorenz said I was the first to have a color page in the magazine. I had three color pages in the New Yorker. They were paintings in gouache.

You wrote by hand for both the ones in color and the ones in black and white. And you have painted text for your book covers. You have a beautiful handwriting.

In French school when I was young we did a lot of handwriting exercises. It was part of the schoolwork. We really learned to write.

World War II, around 1943, children hiding in the French village of Vibraye,
Sarthe: Huguette, far right; her brother Maurice, second from left.

In the stories that are typed, are they originally written by hand?

Yes, I start by hand. Then I type it. I’d love to write everything by hand, but the text is usually too long. I love to write. That’s my problem. I just go on and on. I think it’s writing in another language too. After all those years, it’s still wonderful. There’s something special when you write in another language.

Shall we mention some of those New Yorker cartoons? Do you have a favorite?

I have two favorites. The last one was: If They Had Had Prozac in the Nineteenth Century. That showed new attitudes from Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allan Poe. And the other one is My Best Students Ever—I have all those famous writers as students, Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, and Marcel Proust. It’s the first English class, and the subject for them is what did you do during the summer. Everybody finishes, but not Proust; he’s still writing about his summer. I was very pleased with that one.

That was funny. I also found your Blind Date with Louis XIV very amusing.

Somebody wanted to make a movie out of that. But nothing happened.

By the late ’90s, you also got a connection with the New York Times—for a pictorial interpretation of how famous artists would envision Manhattan. How did that come about?

I think they saw my cartoons. They asked me to do a page for the travel section, a page in color. Again, they contacted me. I’m not great at contacting people. So I’ve been very lucky that way.

Are you still in the small studio?

No, I have a very big studio now.

But you’re still doing the smaller works.

They’re getting smaller. I’m interested in doing books. My brother, Maurice Failevic, made movies. Part of me always wanted to make movies. In a way, this is how I make my own movies—images and text.

You wrote a humorous story about applying to film school—Adventures of a Would-Be Filmmaker. And in it you detail film script ideas.

That was my very first story. I don’t know if my brother thought it was that funny.

Were you seriously thinking of becoming a filmmaker, or was this just a joke?

I never thought seriously, but I love movies more than anything. I think there’s something about writing stories and painting. Matisse said, never mix the two. The stories should talk by themselves, and so should the paintings. But I find mixing the two very inspiring.

In your film school story, the admissions committee tells you to “stay away … from stories about old people dying or the Holocaust.”

All I could talk about was war and camps and old age.

But in other script ideas, you give voice to your love for animals. When did you start painting animals?

I think I did start painting those animals when I wrote that story, and since then I’ve painted animals constantly.

From Early Days in Paris by Huguette Martel, published as Growing Up in Wartime France in New York Review of Books Daily, May 5, 2018.

After the war, you spent your summers with an adoptive aunt on the French Riviera around animals, goats and cats and bees. Your stories about your childhood summers sounded like you had happy times after the dark times—hiding out during the war and losing your mother at age 8.

I think most of my inspiration now comes from those summers.

I assumed animals also played a big part in your adult life, because your son Django became a veterinarian.

That’s true, but in New York we did not have pets. My husband was allergic to animals. In the summer, we had a cabin in Vermont, and animals came to visit us.

Yes, you write about the cat who visited your house in Vermont in Animals I Have Known, and Some I Haven’t. And about the goat in France you gave directions to in Russian. I got such a kick out of your goat painting. Do goats really have eyes that are that widespread?

Yes, absolutely. They’re on either side of their head.

“When I was a little girl, I used to spend my summers in a village on the French Riviera, staying with my aunt Mada and an old Russian lady who raised goats and rabbits. She only spoke Russian and so did her goats.”

—From Animals I Have Known, and Some I Haven’t by Huguette Martel, published as An Artist’s Menagerie in New York Review of Books Daily, November 11, 2018.

And there’s the dog in Vermont who came to watch you paint but kept getting between you and your easel.

It’s all true. Most of my stories are based on real things.

You had done a New Yorker cartoon about summer visitors in the country, and that was made up.

Yes. Lassie’s boyfriend Fritz didn’t come to visit.

At least one of the stories was written a few years before it was published. The film school story was published in Narrative in 2017, but I read in a bio that you had written it around 2014.

And I printed the book. They were self-printed. It was part of my work to print those books. And give them away. Sometimes I sold them. That was how it worked for me.

You’re printing a bound copy of the stories.

Yes. I haven’t tried to get them published as books by publishers. I feel those books are what I do now. They’re my work. I love to give them away. It is expensive, but it’s worth it.

The paintings in the book about growing up in Paris, which appeared in the New York Review of Books [2018], are oil. Are any of your works in watercolor?

The ones in the New Yorker were gouache. All the others are oil paints on canvas. I paint small and I paint on canvas, and I cut out the paintings. The book is the real size of the painting. I would make 15, 20, sometimes 30 copies of the book. Quite a few would sell. Friends would want to buy some. They are scanned in a printing shop on 13th Street. But since the pandemic, the shop won’t scan them because they don’t want to handle manuscripts.

There are several pages from a recent book about the pandemic, Under Siege, on You’re extremely frank in that one. Is that because of the pandemic?

I did it right after my husband, Ralph Martel, died in the pandemic. It was really for him that I wrote it. I talked about my husband in a very personal way. There is a mixture of talking about the real thing and telling stories. I don’t think it worked for a lot of people. It worked for me, though. It was what I felt at the beginning of the pandemic, both what happened and trying to escape with those stories. It was a little bit disappointing for me that people didn’t go for that book, which was very close to me because it was more personal than usual.

Did you print those out and give them to people as books?

Yes. I’ve done quite a few books since then, but three of them have not been printed yet.

Your work was also shown by Bernay Fine Art a few years ago.

They showed some of the animals that were in the New York Review of Books, and they sold some of the paintings. I was in another show in Sheffield, Massachusetts, not long ago. They showed some of my books. Quite a few were sold, and one was stolen—I wouldn’t call that a compliment, not really.

“I found this portrait of a young badger the other day, and I thought he looked so appealing I decided to consult my French-English dictionary to see what this interesting animal was called in my native French: blaireau!

—From Animals I Have Known, and Some I Haven’t by Huguette Martel, published as An Artist’s Menagerie in New York Review of Books Daily, November 11, 2018.

You also had a show in 2007 called “Lost and Found.”

I had a big show in a synagogue in Brooklyn. It was a one-woman show. Ben Katchor is a cartoonist, and he makes books and he’s brilliant. He’s the one who organized the whole show. And I sold a lot. A lot of the people were my friends, but still. I was showing big paintings from my past, and I did a series of panels where I would have eight or twelve paintings with words. That’s what started my books. I used to just have paintings on a board with the text.

What was the subject matter of the panels?

It was very much the same thing. One was about my brother. One was about the aunt I spent summers with on the Riviera. One was about what it means to be Jewish. One was about schooldays and how my philosophy teacher was inspiring to us. Some of them were sad. One was about my uncle, whose whole family was killed in Lithuania during the war. They were again very autobiographical.

What are you working on at the moment?

The book I recently finished is on philosophers, mostly French philosophers. But the very last one is about painters, and its title is Hallelujah. That’s my favorite. It’s a fantasy where I meet all my favorite painters. I did a lot of copies of works by painters I like, Manet, Corot, Van Gogh. I loved doing that.

“After van Gogh departs, I choose one of his wonderful self-portraits to copy. However, my art books are old and the reproductions are small. Did van Gogh really paint his face such a vivid yellow? (Not a problem for me, I love yellow.)”

—From Hallelujah by Huguette Martel, 2021.

All this time you’ve been teaching French as well.

I still teach French, on Zoom now. I started by teaching at the New School. That was for eighteen years, and after that I gave private lessons, very often going to people’s homes or they were coming to me. But since the pandemic, I’ve taught with Zoom. I really like it.

Do you ever teach art?

I never taught art, except to my grandchildren. I have three grandchildren who are the apples of my eye, Shaan, Jacques, and Rocio. I gave some oil lessons to all three of them at some point.

You’re an original tenant at Westbeth, and you brought up your two sons here.

One was born in Westbeth. That was Django.

In 2014, you did a cover portrait for your son James’s book The One and Only Law: Walter Benjamin and the Second Commandment.

The One and Only Law: Walter Benjamin and the Second Commandment by James R. Martel, 2014; book cover painting by Huguette Martel.

I did more than one. He wrote several books about Walter Benjamin. I did portraits of him for two books.

Except for the New Yorker cartoons, you don’t often work in black and white. How was it not to use color for most of the cartoons?

I liked doing the black ink. By the way, I also had something a few years ago in the New York Times.

Yes, in 2019, you did a portrait of a donkey with a quote from Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson. In your Animals book, you wrote about your affinity for the donkey.

I love the way they look. I’ve never known one personally. I find them very appealing, and I love to paint them. I love to paint goats and donkeys, also cats and dogs. But donkeys, I feel I have a real affinity for. In fact, I have a self-portrait in my home, which is a donkey head. That’s how I see myself.

From Animals I Have Known, and Some I Haven’t by Huguette Martel, published as An Artist’s Menagerie in New York Review of Books Daily, November 11, 2018.

But you also wrote, “If I were an animal, I probably would not want to be a donkey as most of them have pretty rotten lives.”

I forgot about that, but that’s absolutely true. They have very hard lives.

I’m so impressed by the way you write in English, considering it’s not your first language. It’s straightforward but also very moving.

I do ask my sons or friends to see if I make gross mistakes. Because I do make some mistakes in English. But I think sometimes it does sound French.

When you said you’ve written about philosophers, I thought that’s so French. When I think of the French, I think of philosophers.

I was really writing about the existentialists. Most of them were French. One of my recent books is about French culture, writing and popular music. It’s half-written in French, which I translate word for word. I loved doing that book. I call it Douce France. That’s a famous song by Charles Trenet.

Book cover of Douce France by Huguette Martel, 2021.

You experienced a lot of trauma in your youth. Yet you’ve said that you want your writing to be discreet and humorous. Indeed it is. The Filmmaker story, for sure. After your problems with the committee’s “no depressing scripts” directive, you wrote, “There is a streak of melancholy in my nature, and I can only guess whose fault it is: the Nazis, probably …” I laugh every time I think of that.

When I write, the funny parts come naturally. I don’t know that I’m going to be funny, but then it comes out. I love being funny more than anything. If I could just be funny and just do cartoons, I’d probably be very happy. I really love painting, though.

I would imagine that working on your paintings and writing the autobiographical text could be healing.

But very hard for me because I’m not really a writer. I see myself as a painter. The writing is extremely difficult until I find the subject. I very often start with paintings. I’m between books now, and that’s the hardest time for me. During the height of the pandemic, I never stopped. But now it’s much harder again.

From Hallelujah by Huguette Martel, 2021.

Are you ever going to try to get an art publisher for your books?

It’s very hard for me to do that. I know I should. I’m getting older. Except right now, I keep producing those books. Eventually I won’t have enough money to do it myself because it’s quite expensive. An art dealer saw my books and liked them. He came to my house. He had a connection with a good printer. And then the pandemic started, and he went away from New York. That was the last of it. The pandemic did that to a lot of people. Of course, the problem always is, with my work, I have to give the originals. I have to hand them over.

You were an original tenant. You left for a while. When did you come back?

Four or five years ago. I was on the waiting list for eighteen years. And I feel so privileged. I cannot begin to tell you. I love it. I feel very lucky to live in Westbeth.

During the time that you weren’t living here, you still had the studio.

I still had the studio, so that was great. But I lived in tiny, kind of closet places, which was fine. As I got older, it started to worry me to have to climb stairs. I’m going to be 83. I knew at some point I would have trouble with the tiny apartment and stairs. So I feel blessed to be in Westbeth.

I assume that you have friends here as well from the early days.

I have a few friends from before, but very few. Many of my friends either have died or have left. And I find Westbeth very different, of course. When I moved in in ’70, we all were young and had young children. We got to know each other through the children, mostly. There are a lot new people, young people, which is great.

All images courtesy of Huguette Martel.

To see some of Huguette Martel’s New Yorker cartoons, go to this link.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2021 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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