Not At Your Home with Art Dealer Éric Mourlot
Éric Mourlot tried to be a banker for a few years after training with Senator Ted Kennedy and dreaming of—and yet never pursuing—a political career. The grandson of Fernand Mourlot—who was one of France’s most famous lithographers—took over his father Jacques’ position 20 years ago as the representative of the family’s historic collection of thousands of lithographs, created by some of the greatest modern and contemporary artists, from Picasso to Alex Katz, from David Hockney to Le Corbusier, from Françoise Gilot to Man Ray.
In his Upper East Side gallery, Eric Mourlot pursues his grandfather tradition of unearthing and promoting young artists. He also keeps on building the digital exhibition on MourlotEditions.com of dozens of exceptional lithographs, often signed and numbered.
No matter the confinement, he did (not) welcome (us) dressed as usual: straight in his navy blazer with a white pocket square, an unbuttoned tie-less shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, smoking an American Spirit cigarette and with a flask of whisky at hand. Éric Mourlot has everything of a rare dandy in the art world, one-third Clark Gable, two-thirds French gentleman Farmer.
Thank you for not inviting me to your place. By the way, where are we?
You are in my gallery on 79th Street in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, in the heart of New York—which no longer is the center of New York since everyone stays at home.
Éric Mourlot in his gallery! So, it seems that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same!’
The gallery is obviously closed. No one can visit it for the time being. Yet, the love of art is still alive and kicking. A lot of people think that art is important for our well-being; it is essential for them to think about things that can lift us up.
Has the dialogue with your clients and collectors changed since the beginning of the crisis?
Email relationships have taken on a new depth. The conversations are illustrated; the sentences are thoughtful; and the vocabulary is richer. Before, we were just asked for basic information about the works. Since the confinement started, my interlocutors take the time to talk, express their feelings, and exchange; they work on their grammar and carefully choose their words. They want to understand the history of a work or an artist.
So, the conversation is now more centered around art than before?
It is the paradox. I still receive requests through our website, but the dialogue focuses more about the quality and artistic value of a work than its price. The conversation is both patient and immediate, in search of knowledge and emotions whether it is about a lithograph, an artist, or about the memory of colors and perfumes of a place.
With whom did you have these conversations?
With an American man in his sixties from Virginia. He was inquiring about two Raoul Dufy lithographs. He obviously asked me a lot of technical questions, but he also wondered about the meaning of the work and the message Dufy was trying to convey. We exchanged an epistolary series of six or seven emails.
What intrigued him about Dufy?
He wanted to know how this specialist in the art of wallpaper had opened himself up to a much more artistic dimension. Dufy had always been an artist: he drew wallpapers for a living, and that helped him to become famous. We then talked about Dufy’s followers—including Matisse and artists who placed beauty at the core of their work. For others like Braque, it was spirituality that dominated; for Picasso, it was politics. But for Dufy and Matisse, beauty became the main element of their art.
Did you end up selling a lithograph to this customer in Virginia?
He finally decided to buy three. He contacted me at first about a specific piece he had seen on mourloteditions.com. This lithograph represents a building in Nice. He had loved this city very much and wanted to understand why the colors were so clear, so deep and representative of the fauvism of Vlaminck and Matisse. He also liked a more sober piece by Dufy, a view from a window on a street. These two works are opposed to each other. The first is a view from the outside and the second from the inside, and both are composed of totally different colors, another characteristic of Fauvism.
And the third lithograph?
My new friend from Virginia chose a totally different and abstract work by American painter Sam Francis who, like Dufy, was a colorist. I understood then that my client loved colors, which does not surprise me because we are stuck at home. We need colors, we need life, we need to get out. We miss the colors of the outside world.
Which artists are also popular at the moment?
I received a request from someone in Utah for a lithographic poster by Édouard Manet, which depicts a very graceful and elegant woman wearing a top hat and was created for an exhibition in Marseilles in 1961. A collector also commissioned a very rare 1964 poster by Picasso. Another person, in England, just bought me a work on the city of Menton painted by the English Graham Sutherland. Again, more vivid colors.
Menton, Nice, Marseille… This sounds like serendipity! because many of the Mourlot workshop’s regulars loved the Mediterranean.
This was obviously the case of Picasso who lived for a while near the Sainte Victoire mountain in Vauvenargues, but also in Vallauris and Antibes; Matisse was based in Nice, Bonnard in Le Cannet, Chagall in Saint Paul de Vence; Dufy of course and even Cocteau spent a lot of time on the French Riviera.
Plunging back into the Mourlot inventory during these weeks of confinement actually allows you to travel a lot!
I am using this opportunity to learn. I have become very sensitive to my clients’ more thorough requests. I have much more time to devote to them, so I can do more in-depth research.
Finally, you seem to like this slow-motion period.
It’s the silver lining, as the English would say. Even though it’s a difficult time that saddens me a lot, we can take advantage of what’s happening to us to appreciate certain things that are fundamental and that perhaps will be a source of inspiration to change the world. I hope that the quality and emotion of art will continue to stand out more than its speculative value.
Have you recently unearthed any hidden treasures among the hundreds of works you own?
I found my one-year-old “hand,” immortalized on a lithograph by Paul Jenkins, this American artist who was very close to Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock.
Eric Mourlot’s hand! Isn’t your hand also the one who had fun drawing on a Mirò’s lithography project behind his back?
Ah, that was a big mistake. I was a seven-year-old kid! Mirò and my grandfather Fernand had just gone out to lunch. I took advantage of this moment to scribble a cigarette on one of the unfinished lithographic stones Mirò was drawing. The employees of the workshop obviously did not know what to do—I was the boss’ grandson after all. When they finally told my grandfather about it, Mirò turned around and with his inimitable Mallorca accent exclaimed: “no, it’s very, very good, it’s a collaboration.” He even took one of the final lithographs, added smoke to my cigarette and dedicated it to me.
You also found a rare Cocteau drawing?
A fabulous drawing by Cocteau dedicated to my grandfather. I can imagine the two of them sharing a cup of coffee together on a terrace in Montparnasse. Cocteau probably took out a pencil, and we made a poster of it.
Cocteau was obviously not only a writer, a playwright, a director; he was also a multimedia artist, a very contemporary one.
He was an admirable human being, a very sensitive person, elegant and humble. At the inauguration of La Chapelle de Saint-Pierre des Pêcheurs in Villefranche, he left the guests and the minister for the little port to speak with the fishermen. He had created this place for them.
In his Speech from the Great Sleep (Discours du Grand Sommeil), he wrote these few poetic lines that remind me of your perception of nowadays, somewhat bitter, slowdown’s beauty. “Our speed is so strong that it places us at a point of silence and monotony. I meet you because I don’t have all my speed, and the fever gives you a standing speed that is rare among the living.” At last, speed would mean an acceleration of death, while slowness would emphasize our appreciation of life. As Cocteau wrote in this poem, “C’est bon le relief” (It feels good in relief).
Since we have been forced to be immobile, we have become more attentive to everything around us. Of course, I’m thinking of these words, again from Cocteau, written in 1955 on one of his lithographs:
les murs ont des oreilles
ils ont même des bouches : les affiches
Mourlot vous présente
quelques-unes de leurs chansons,
quelques-uns de leurs cris
Walls have ears
They even have mouths: posters
Mourlot presents you
Some of their songs,
Some of their screams
My gallery is closed today, yet it remains noisier and more alive than ever.