Monday, June 23, 2008

Any port in a storm

Louis Valdo-Barbey, Londres
Original etching, 1949

One of the lesser-known artists whose work I have been collecting is Louis Valdo-Barbey, also known as Valdo Barbey. He was born Valdo Louis Barbey in Velleyres in Switzerland in 1883, and studied under Georges Desvallières and Eugène Burnand. Valdo-Barbey was already well launched on his artistic career before WWI, having exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants from 1906, at the Salon d’Automne from 1909, and at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts from 1910. He joined up at the outset of the war, and was invalided out of the army after being seriously injured on 22 December 1914. While recovering from his injuries he wrote the memoir Soixante jours de guerre, probably the first eyewitness memoir of the war. It was first published in 1915, and re-published in 2004 under the title Soixante jours de guerre en 1914. Valdo-Barbey resumed his artistic career, exhibiting regularly at the Salons d’Automne and des Tuileries. He travelled widely, and among his varied works there is one theme that predominates – that of the port. His three paintings exhibited at the Salon des Tuileries in 1941 were entitled Le port, Cargo quittant Le Havre, and Port d’Anvers. One of his three paintings in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris is Le port de Marseille.

Louis Valdo-Barbey, Marseille
Original etching, 1949

This theme is carried through Valdo-Barbey’s etchings and lithographs. I have a wonderful set of etchings of seaports made in 1949, which were turned into a book with the title De Londres à Venise par New York (From London to Venice via New York), with accompanying text by Claude Farrère. This was published by René Kieffer and printed by André Steff. 538 copies of the book were printed, 9 on Japon imperial, the rest on B.F.K. Rives. There were also 88 separate suites, 9 on Japon, and 79 on Rives. I have no. 42 of 79. The suites were printed before the addition of the name of each port and the initials V. B., which were etched into the plates, usually at the bottom right. This is the only difference between the etchings in the suite and those in the book, as the latter are not bound in or attached to the text in any way; the etchings are simply loosely inserted into a double-page spread of text. So it’s a moot question whether the suite etchings are more desirable, being the earliest and rarest impressions, or the book etchings, as they bear Valdo-Barbey’s initials and identify the subject. Whatever, I love these subtly-observed etchings, which are so alive to the teeming detail of a busy port.

Louis Valdo-Barbey, Bordeaux
Original etching, 1949

The viewpoint in the etchings is often from on high, giving a panoramic sweep of the life of the port. The journey of the book takes us to eighteen ports: from London to Hamburg to Rotterdam to Anvers to Paris to Rouen to Le Havre to Southampton to Brest to New York to Bordeaux to Bilbao to La Coruña to Marseille to Toulon to Genoa to Naples and finally as promised to Venice, an itinerary not without its switchbacks.

Louis Valdo-Barbey, New York
Original etching, 1949

Valdo-Barbey’s travels for my second set of prints were more sedate. These are a set of colour lithographs of Flanders and Sicily, with accompanying text by Valdo-Barbey himself. They were published the year after the etchings, in 1950 by Henri Lefèbvre, under the title Lettres à Julien, with the subtitle Flandre et Sicile. The lithographs were printed on a hand press by Louis Ravel. There were 200 copies, of which 55 had suites, all printed on B. F. K. Rives. Mine is copy 57/200, so only has one set of the 20 lithographs.

Louis Valdo-Barbey, Le port d'Ostende
Original lithograph, 1950

As the subtitle suggests, the text and lithographs represent a kind of diary of Valdo-Barbey's travels in Flanders and Sicily. While not every plate depicts a port or harbour, they are certainly well-represented, with images of Ostend, San Panagia, Syracuse, and the bay of Taormina.

Louis Valdo-Barbey, Le retour des thoniers à San Panagia
Original lithograph, 1950

Whereas the etchings are all about the nervous energy that can be expressed in line, the colour lithographs are about flat planes and bodies of colour. In contrast to the bustle of the etchings, the lithographs breathe stillness and serenity. They have an almost Art Deco monumentality to them.

Louis Valdo-Barbey, Le golfe à Taormina
Original lithograph, 1950

I admire both styles, and it really depends on my mood which I prefer. Both represent a late flowering of Valdo-Barbey’s talent; he had already by 1949 ceased to send paintings to the Salons, I believe. He died in 1965, at the age of 82.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps for someone who grew up in a landlocked country there is something liberating about the edge of the sea. Thank you for pointing out how Valdo-Barbey used these two media to show different aspects of a subject that obviously gripped him. I searched for a library that might have one of the books, but the closest one was the Swiss National Library - rare indeed.