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The Patlageans of Chisinau

I am cursed with many things: an enthusiastic disorganization, difficulty maintaining focus and a tendency toward hoarding. One thing, however, more than compensates for those negative characteristics: I am fortunate to have an intense and insatiable curiosity.

The investigation of artist Gabriel Spat might have gone no farther than the accumulation of the three or four very brief biographies found on the internet. Collectively, they are disappointingly general, ambivalent, and (dare I point a finger at the work of my betters?) non-committal.

I might have stopped when genealogical sources revealed his origins: neither in France nor the United States, as had been speculated, but in far more exotic Moldova, former Romanian territory that had become Soviet and is now an independent, though impoverished, independent state. At some date following his emigration to France, Salomon Patlagean combined the initial of his given name with the first three of his surname. S+PAT=Spat. Frankly, I was feeling pretty smug right then. But with a whole new avenue of research opening before me, there was no choice but to follow where it might lead.

With some assurance I can tell you this. Salomon Patlagean (also spelled “Patlajean”) was the offspring of a well-to-do Moldovan Jewish family who owned a cement factory. In a pogrom of 1905, Salomon’s father was blinded, which may have been interpreted as writing on the wall to leave their native Chisinau for a place of greater tolerance. Two young Patlageans—Salomon, born 1890, and Naum, born two years previous—were enrolled in the local art school, an institution of some distinction, especially for sculpture. It’s reasonable to think that Naum and Salomon were brothers: same surname, similar education and both emigrated to Paris by the roaring 1920s. Genealogical sources have failed to confirm this, but the LDS church hasn’t yet pillaged Moldovan archives for all their documentary resources; and the Moldovan National Library wants some up-front cash for research at their end. Apparently they don’t take VISA cards or PayPal.

Immigration records reveal other members of the family relocating westward to France, and at least two of them are identified as “artist” or “sculptor”. Creative clan, the Patlageans.

Pushing the envelope a bit farther—by which I mean OCLC or WorldCat, the online catalogue of the Library of Congress—and by using both the Patlagean and Spat surnames, Gabriel Spat’s place in the cultural cauldron that was Paris in the ’20s emerges. He interacted with Louis Delluc (1890-1924), an early innovator in French cinema. Salomon (i.e., Gabriel Spat) designed the cast bronze profile of Delluc for his tomb in the cemetery of suburban Montrouge/Bagneux. Research success can sometimes be frustrating, however, for Delluc and Spat collaborated on a publication both small in size and few in number—Vedettes mondiales de l’écran or World Stars of the Screen—with an introduction by Delluc and caricatures by Spat. It is frustrating to know that one copy exists in a public collection: the French National Library. Wanna bet they’ll be fun to deal with?

I have the will, so there must be a way.


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