Sunday, October 21, 2007

Being and knowing

Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, Qui pleure là?

One of my favourite recent purchases is one of just 125 copies of the suite of etchings with colour aquatint executed by a little-known Belgian artist, and heroine of the Belgian Resistance, Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, for an edition of La jeune Parque (The young Fate) by Paul Valéry. Published in 1935, these intense etchings marry the spiritual and the erotic in a way that makes them, to my mind, the last masterpiece of a pure Symbolist aesthetic.

The etchings were printed on a hand press by Eugène Delâtre, signed in pencil by the artist, and simply interleaved with the separately printed text. The book, issued by the Belgian publisher Goossens, was published in a numbered edition of 109: 1 on Japon Vellum Kozo, with an extra suite of the prints; 16 on Japon Impérial, with a suite of all the states of one print; and 100 on Rives (as mine). There were also 8 hors commerce copies, 5 on Japon, and 3 on Rives. I know that Paul Valéry himself had one of the copies on Japon, with an extra suite of the prints in black only.

Valéry wrote this dramatic monologue between 1912 and 1916; it was first published in 1917. Intending to compose a 30-line poem as a farewell to literature, for the 1920 revised collected poems Album de vers anciens, Valéry instead wrote a major work of 500 lines, his first poem since his existential crisis of 1892. Spoken by a young woman, La jeune Parque is concerned with the battle between body and spirit; and between being and knowing. Its dreamlike quality was perfectly suited to Ghislaine de Menten de Horne. Other artists attracted by the same text included the vastly underrated Marianne Clouzot, Jean-Gabriel Daragnès, and Jean Carton. But it is Ghislaine de Menten de Horne who gave us the most personal and powerful interpretation of the inner music of Valéry’s highly-wrought text.

Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, Souvenir

Paul Valéry himself was bowled over by the quality of her work, writing, “Ces belles épreuves en couleurs témoignent d’une possession peu commun du difficile metier de l’aquatinte. Dans certains d’entre elles la taille et la morsure très nettes et fermes s’accordent particulièrement bien avec la finesse des tons et le subtil emploi des grains. Cette technique complexe vous a permis de réaliser des compositions d’ordonnance très noble.” (The beautiful colour proofs testify to a rare command of the difficult art of aquatint. In certain of them the very clear line and confident bite accord particularly well with the finesse of the tones and the subtle grains. This complex technique has enabled you to realise compositions of a very noble order.)

Plans were laid for a second collaboration, Album de vers anciens, for which Ghislaine de Menten de Horne etched 42 copper plates. This book was in proof when the Second World War broke out, but was never printed. One of the 125 copies of La jeune Parque is in the Koopman Collection of the National Library of the Netherlands, together with the original zinc plates and a sketchbook of preparatory drawings. The Koopman Collection also acquired from the artist’s estate the copper plates, proofs, and preparatory drawings for the unrealised Album de vers anciens.

With the outbreak of WWII, the life of Ghislaine de Menten de Horne took a dramatic twist. She became an active member of the Resistance, placing explosives for sabotage, and acting as back-up to the agent Max Londot, who was parachuted in from London. She was twice arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, but won her release by playing “the stupid innocent aristocrat who knew nothing but paint.” For her outstanding acts of bravery she was awarded many medals.

After the war, Ghislaine and Max married, and went to live in Kivu in the Belgian Congo, where Ghislaine painted still lives and portraits. The marriage did not last, and in 1960 Ghislaine de Menten de Horne returned to Belgium, where she resumed her artistic studies in the atelier of Marcel Hastir. She divided her time between her castle of Sparmont in Huy and her studio in Vorst (Brussels). An idealistic intellectual, Ghislaine de Menten de Horne lived for her art.

Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, Abandonne-toi vive aux serpents

She was born Marie Cécile Armande Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, into an aristocratic Belgian family. She attended the Académie Julian, and studied printmaking in the studio of the engraver Paul Bornet. Subsequently she continued her artistic studies at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Ghislaine de Menten de Horne’s early artistic career was full of promise, culminating in the commission from Goossens to illustrate La jeune Parque.

She first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1931. The thirties were marked by her friendships with the philosopher Marie-Anne Cochet and the writer Paul Valéry, and by her work on La jeune Parque and the unpublished Album de vers anciens. In 1942 she exhibited in the Toison d’Or and Breughel galleries in Brussels. Swept into the maelstrom of WWII, her work with the Luc-Marc Resistance network and the romance of her relationship with Max Londot, she did not exhibit again until 1966, with shows at the Mont des Arts and La Licorne in Brussels. Regular shows followed in her remaining years, mostly in various Brussels galleries, with a posthumous exhibition in the Veilingshuis “Vanderkindere” in 1996, the year after her death. Her artistic estate was auctioned in aid of Médecins sans frontiers. The art of Ghislaine de Menten de Horne has been gradually recognized as an important strand of Belgian art of the twentieth century, by critics such as Jacques Collard (for instance in 50 Artistes de Belgique, 1976) and Dr Eric Cabris (in Ghislaine de Menten de Horne, 1988).

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