‘O’, AURY & PAULHAN AND ART: Circles Within Circles

The story behind Story of O is multifaceted, its company of players reflected to us by the prism of the past…


“Elle était une idée, une fumée, une douleur, la négation d’un destin.”

A sense of decency is one of the singularities of Story of O, and places the novel outside of most other erotic writing. Story of O author Dominique Aury (1907-1998 – born Anne Desclos), éminence grise of French publishing from the early 1950s until her death in 1998, was described as “a little woman soberly dressed, a nun of literature – anglicist, great translator, great reader – who entered the convent Gallimard after the war, thanks to Jean Paulhan, her dearest love.”

Exuding a certain refinement, Aury had a taste for concealment, clandestinity and sought to be both “conqueror and grey eminence”. She was secretary of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise and for twenty five years, the one and only women member of the Gallimard Reading Committee.

Dominique- Aury-3

Jean Grosjean has said, “She had a discreetly warm politeness and an indulgent perspicacity for everyone.” She had a look “intelligent, attentive, compassionate or amused,” says Constance Delaunay (in the tribute pages of the Nouvelle Revue Française). Régine Deforges would write,“From our first meeting, I was seduced by Dominique Aury, by her kindness and simplicity. I was surprised that she was so far removed from the idea I had of a writer who had written such a disturbing book. Nothing in her revealed “the erotomaniac” that she was in reality; she hid her game well.”

A taste for secrecy was an essential part of her identity. “All her life,” writes blogger Delius, “Dominique Aury has cultivated a taste for secrecy and played with her many masks to conquer her freedom. Born in 1907, it was in secret, in the library of her English father, that Anne Desclos initiated herself in the delights of libertine literature. As soon as she is married to Raymond d’Argila, a tyrannical and violent man, the young student at the Sorbonne goes into “clandestinity”, a principle of life she will never give up.”

Un jour, Paulhan m’a dit, légèrement agacé : “Enfin, c’est insupportable, vous trouvez moyen de faire remarquer que vous êtes effacée.” J’ai répondu : “Mais je ne fais rien…” C’était spontané, je ne faisais absolument pas exprès… Est-ce un goût ou une fatalité ? Clandestine ? Oui, il faut croire que c’est une vocation, j’ai toujours pensé que c’était une vocation. » — Dominique Aury.

Dominique Aury (2)

Her personality was complex, “ardent seductress, fierce clandestine”… And her life and love touched that of Raymond d’Argila (whom she married and quickly divorced), Jacques Talagrand, who took the pen name of Thierry Maulnier, writer Edith Thomas (the two were lovers – Thomas may have been an inspiration for the character of Anne-Marie in Story of O), and Janine Aeply, wife of the artist Fautrier and possibly the inspiration for the character of ‘O’, and more, who touched her life in return, creating a “sinuous course” of a woman of multiple identities. Her greatest love, Jean Paulhan, introduced her to the literary milieu, of which she became a key figure; two key figures side by side at Gallimard, their ‘affair’ stretching from 1947 to his death in 1968.


Books and pictures happily go together in the world of the literary review, book design, publication, book selling and book collecting. I speak not so much of the pictures that illustrate our favourite books and texts but of those objects of curiosity to be found dotted between the bookshelves in our favourite antiquarian book store, or the picture on the wall behind our favoured author photographed amongst the cosy chaos of his or her study, writing room or office.


Our author of Story of O can be found likewise posed in front of a painted portrait (by an artist unnamed). Her lover and inspiration behind the writing of Histoire d’O, Jean Paulhan, a favourite subject of artist Jean Dubuffet, can be found sat at his desk photographed beneath a painting of the focus of his romantic affections; Dominique Aury by Jean Claude Fourneau.


Should it be a surprise that these two individuals, the ‘nun’ of Gallimard and the Roman general of the NRF, mixed in circles of both writers and artist?

Is not the powerful surrealist motif in the final chapter of Histoire d’O inspired by the writer’s meeting with Léonor Fini (she found Fini intimidating)?

And was not Jean Paulhan close to surrealist ‘Pope’, Andre Breton, and his circle, from the early days of the Surrealist movement in Paris?

Max Ernst Le rendez-vous des amis

Max Ernst’s “Rendezvous of Friends”, 1922: Lower row from left to right: The poet Rene Crevel (turned to the left) plays on an imaginary piano – Max Ernst (self-portrait) sits on the knee of the bearded Dostoevsky – Theodor Fraenkel is almost covered by Jean Paulhan – next to Benjamin Peret with monocle – while from the right Johannes Baargeld and Robert Desnos storm into the action with giant strides.
Upper row from left to right: Philippe Soupault – Hans Arp – Max Morise – Raphael Santi (after self portrait of 1506) – Paul Eluard – Louis Aragon with laurel wreath around his hips – Andre Breton (with red scarf) pointing to concentric comet circles – Giorgio de Chirico – and as the only woman on the painting Mrs. Gala Eluard (since October 1934 Mrs. Dali).

Paulhan finds a place close to the central foreground of the famous group portrait by Max Ernst Le rendez-vous des amis (1922) “as though Ernst wished to pay homage to Paulhan’s role as a pathfinder for the avant-garde.”


Above: PAULHAN at the editorial meeting for the journal ‘Mesures’ in Ville d’Avray, 1937: Sylvia Beach, Barbara Church, Vladimir Nabokov (standing), Adrienne Monnier, Germaine Paulhan, Henry Church, Henri Michaux (standing at the table), Jean Paulhan (standing), Michel Leiris (photo Gisèle Freund)

Crepax-Histoire d'O.jpg


The offices of Gallimard and the Nrf (1929) Paris


Martyn Cornick has written, “When Paulhan came to the Nrf he already had established connections with avant-garde networks and writers.” Indeed Paulhan had, what Cornick describes as, “distinct modernist credentials”.

“The monthly NRF [it is now quarterly] is frequently credited as being the most prestigious literary and cultural review in twentith-century France…” writes Cornick. Editor Jean Paulhan (from 1925 to 1940) enabled the NRF to achieve lasting renown as a cultural institution. Paulhan’s personal connections, led him to take risks with the NRF, challenging its ‘orthodoxy’ and continuing its ability to renew itself.


“if one wants to understand Jean Paulhan,” wrote Frédéric Grover, “it would perhaps be716-qEQGaYL better to start not with writers, but with painters.” Paulhan wrote at length about Cubism, Georges Braque, Jean Dubuffet, and Jean Fautrier. With Paul Éluard and André Breton, Paulhan participated in the organization of one of the most significant early efforts to tame the chaotic protests of Dada, the Congrès international pour la détermination des directives et la défense de l’esprit moderne (International Congress to Determine the Directives and Defense of the Modern Spirit), whose excessively bureaucratic character was mocked by Tristan Tzara and others. During the Vichy period, Paulhan undertook a defense of modern French painting. At the NRF he added Breton’s L’amour fou (1937) to his Metamorphosis collection. He wrote his first critical texts in defense of Cubism and Jean Fautrier.

Georges Braque-Paulhan Paris, July 1943.

Georges Braque and Jean Paulhan,  Paris, July 1943. Paulhan purchased Braque’s 1914 papier collé, Violin in the early 1920s.

Jean-Claude Zylberstein compared Paulhan’s fascination with modern art to his love of literature thus: “From literature he had at first hoped to snatch… the immediacy of expression…. In the new painting, he wanted to show that it gives us the true image of the real, of the real that we have ceased to see right-side-up.”
Very much l’ami des peintres, Paulhan counted among his friends Juan Gris, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
“Everyone who knew him has an anecdote about Paulhan.” writes Michael Syrotinski, “… People who talk about Paulhan invariably end up talking about his, mystery, his modesty, his disarming playfulness, the subtle balance of contradictory traits, as if one might catch the essence of his elusive chracter within a fleeting manifestation of its appearence.” Little wonder painters sought to capture something of Paulhan’s contradictions, “his fine, nervous silhouette, his mask as enigmatic as it was affable…[Robert Sebastian]”.

Paulhan-1963 elected to The Académie Francaise

Jean Paulhan with Jean Cocteau at Paulhan’s election to The Académie Francaise, 1963


Jean-Fautrier (2)

Jean Fautrier (1898-1964) was a French painter, illustrator, printmaker, and sculptor. He was one of the most important practitioners of Tachisme. His paintings echoed Paulhan’s life-long debates on language, thought, representation, and on the very material of their production. Malraux described Fautrier’s Hostages series as “A hieroglyth of pain.”


Jean Paulhan filmed with Jean Fautrier 

His quasi-abstract, gestural nature helped usher in a new movement known as Art informel (formless art), a European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s and 1950s. His paintings are fascinating and often powerful. Hostages laid the foundation for Fautrier’s later fame. From 1949 to 1954 his career as a painter was once more interrupted due to his difficult financial situation.

The later French minister of culture and writer André Malraux, made Fautrier editor in the Gallimard publishing house, at which the NRF was published, putting him in charge of the graphical side of art editions. Together with his wife Jeanine Aeply, Fautrier developed “Originaux Multiples”, a mixture of graphic print and painting.


Jean Claude Fourneau: Of quite a different energy is the painting of Mme Aury to be seen in the accompanying photograph of Paulhan taken in 1954 (the year which saw Story of O published in Paris). It is a portrait by the artist Jean Claude Fourneau (1907-1981), a French painter initially close to the surrealist movement. Fourneau appears on a photograph of surrealist artists gathered at the Café Cyrano in 1953, and André Breton mentions him as being part of the group.

Surrealist group at Cyrano, Place Blanche café, March 1953


Fourneau wrote to André Breton at his address, rue Fontaine, in 1954 to try to “temper the case of Story of O, of which he was a fervent defender, with the representation of the subliminal woman in Arcane 17, an essay by Breton. As if ‘untempered love’, ‘elected love’ could not find any better unravelling as in the paradox of opposites, pleasure against pain, violence against tenderness, free adult relations against faithfulness, strength against weakness…” (Wikipedia). Such opposites and ambiguities would have been of interest to Paulhan. At the centre of his concerns was a phenomenon he called clarity reversal.Jean-Claude_Fourneau._Jardin_public.


The canvas sat upon the book piles is of interest as it appears different to the same portrait of Aury which appears elsewhere on the internet. Gone from the latter are the details which seem to take flight around the portrait of a svelte Aury, details which remind me of the paintings of Dorothea Tanning.

Fourneau a draughtsman and painter imbued with classicism and surrealism, was first noticed at his show at the Jeanne Castel Gallery by André Salmon in 1932. Later Fourneau specialised in portraits and built himself a most solid reputation. By the early 1960s the Parisian fashion and intellectual circle had “found its painter”.


Jean Dubuffet: Thanks to his numerous connections, Jean Paulhan helped Jean Dubuffet(1901-1985) to make a initial and substantial name for himself in the world of art. It is recorded that between 1944 and 1968, Jean Dubuffet sent 564 letters and postcards to Jean Paulhan. They met in December 1943, and their correspondence began a year later. Paulhan in his turn wrote catalogue introductions and arranged for Dubuffet to participated in the exhibition “The Nude in Contemporary Art” at the gallery Drouin. In 1945, Dubuffet attended and was strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Jean Fautrier’s paintings. Emulating Fautrier, Dubuffet started to use thick oil paint mixed with materials such as mud, sand, coal dust, pebbles, pieces of glass, string, straw, plaster, gravel, cement, and tar. This allowed him to abandon the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush.

On October 20, 1945, the first “outstanding exhibition” of new work by Dubuffet opened at the same gallery and provoked somewhat of a scandal. Dubuffet was on his way to enjoying a prolific art career, both in France and in America. His idealistic approach to aesthetics embraced so called “low art” and eschewed traditional standards of beauty in favour of what he believed to be a more authentic and humanistic approach to image-making. He featured in many exhibitions throughout his lifetime.


Jean Paulhan by Robert Lapoujade.

Robert Lapoujade (1921-1993) also portrayed Jean Paulhan in paint. Paulhan was obviously a good sitter!(see drawing by Lyne Limouse). Born in Montauban, Lapoujade, painter and film director, was a provocative character with many facets. 

Paulhan par Lyne Limouse

drawing by Lyne Limouse

He exhibited widely winning the coveted Prix Marzotto of the 1960 Venice Biennial; the Carnegie Prize, 1961, Pittsburgh; the Prix Lissone, 1962, Lissone, Italy; and the Prix Emile Cohl, 1963, Paris. He wrote essays and other polemical articles some of which were prefaced by Marguerite Duras and Jean-Paul Sartre. Among his many films is a documentary on Paulhan. Self-taught his style became, writes Lawrence Jeppson, “like a surface of broken mirrors. Images were fragmented, reality transformed. Since he had to be at a distance to see the growing whole of what he was painting in tiny strokes, he attached extensions to his brushes. In 1949, he exhibited 29 fragmented portraits of luminaries of the period, including Sartre. They accelerated his reputation.”

female figure by Lapoujade


Bernard Milleret, born in Troyes in 1904, was a talented sculptor who drew Dominique Aury several times in 1942/43. He became an illustrator at the Nouvelles littéraires. He also produced portraits of authors and illustrations for Les Nouvelles littéraires, Les Lettres françaises, Action.


Germaine Richier, whose ‘Portrait of Dominique Aury’, (a bronze dated ‘1955’) is to be found in the collection of the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, was born in Grans, Bouches-du-Rhône, France, in 1902. After six years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier, she moved to Paris in 1926, where she studied privately with Antoine Bourdelle from 1927 to 1929. Her first solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Max Kaganovitch in Paris in 1934. Richier was granted a sculpture prize in 1936 by the Blumenthal Foundation in New York and in 1937 took part in the Paris World’s Fair, where she received an award. Richier showed with Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, André Derain, Jacques Lipchitz, and others in the French Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

germaine-richierRichier lived primarily in Switzerland and Provence during World War II, after which her style became less figurative. The bodily deformations which she favored as subjects became more accentuated in an attempt to convey a greater sense of anguish. With this work she became increasingly well-known and during the late 1940s and the 1950s she exhibited widely in the United States and Europe. Her work was represented at the Venice Biennale in 1948, 1952, and 1954. Richier died in Montpellier on July 31, 1959.
An attempt to “rescue” her from “obscurity” in 2014 at the galleries of Emmanuel Perrotin and Dominique Lévy, was seen as “contrived” by the New York Times critic Roberta Smith. Obscure to some art enthusiasts perhaps, but familiar enough to Guggenheim Gallery goers in New York or to Tate Gallery visitors in London.

(Thanks to Leandro Dávalos for ascertaining the whereabouts of the above bronze portrait)


Gallimard (2)

First NRF new edition

NRF Relaunch: Jean Paulhan, Dominique Aury and Marcel Arland, in the office of Jean Paulhan, 1953 


From looking at old photographs one could be forgiven for imagining dusty grey offices frequented by grey men in grey suits. There are tales of Paulhan’s practical jokes, that he purchased a large mirror at the flea market which distorted the reflected image. He liked to test people’s reactions; “All the women who arrived jumped back and saw themselves as a hippopotamus, it was atrocious!” recalled Dominique Aury.


Jean-Jacques Pauvert remembers Paulhan writing to bookseller Robert Chatté in London asking him to procure a “cat of nine tails” and wondered if it was not to experiment upon the NRF intern who one day opened the door to Paulhan’s office entirely nude, exclaiming, “I’m Justine!”

Pauvert declines the opportunity to reveal her name.

Paris as a thriving community of artists, writers and poets had retained its crown as the world’s centre of the arts for decades. Visitors to the Gallimard offices alone would have kept Dominique Aury, Paulhan and their fellows well acquainted with the creative milieu of their time. It would be surprising if they had not been celebrated in paint, pencil or bronze. And these key figures of the Parisian literary world, a circle within circles, continue to be celebrated in both words and pictures.




text © Stefan Prince (www.storyofo.info)

2 thoughts on “‘O’, AURY & PAULHAN AND ART: Circles Within Circles

  1. Pingback: My ‘Story of O’ Blogs (1 to 65) | Story of O

  2. Pingback: Story of O: Notes in a margin | Story of O

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